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Interesting Winter Holiday Facts

"Las Posadas is a meaningful Christmas tradition in Spain and many Latin American countries. The term literally translates to 'the inns,' but it figuratively refers to the shelter that Mary and Joseph sought on their way to Bethlehem. During the nine evenings preceding Christmas Eve, groups of family and friends will gather to reenact Mary and Joseph’s journey.
Traditionally, two people will dress as Mary and Joseph, and each night a house will be designated as the 'inn' that will allow them inside. As they walk the streets, the groups sing villancicos (Christmas carols) with some members playing instruments as they go. When they arrive at the 'inn' the group enters and prays around a Nativity scene. A celebratory feast, akin to Christmas dinner, usually follows." --description excerpted from the Smithsonian
Visit to view the Smithsonian Folkways Recording album featuring songs traditionally sung during Las Posadas, and listen to a few to celebrate this year! And don’t forget to check back tomorrow for our next themed post.

The Estudillo family played a major role in hosting holiday celebrations throughout the 1800s. Before the Adobe Chapel was built in 1858, the Estudillos hosted religious services in the sala (living room) of their home. It is believed that the room would have contained a large altar at the time. The altar is currently set up to depict a Feast Day, featuring only a statue of Mary and no Cristo. In addition, the open floor space allowed for music and dancing to accompany the celebrations. Furniture was on casters which allowed it to be moved easily around the room to accommodate a fiesta with dancing, music and food. Often times, the Estudillo family would accommodate family and friends that had travelled into the city from their distant ranchos. The Estudillos would have most likely served their guests tamales and Ponche Navideño. Ponche Navideño is a warm punch made with a stone fruit called tejocote, a Mexican Hawthorn similar to a crabapple fruit. Each family made Ponche Navideño differently and there are many different recipes passed down through generations. Some of the most common ingredients used are cinnamon, sugar cane, apples, and raisins. Sometimes tamarind is added as well as hibiscus.

Hanukkah is a celebration to commemorate the rededication of the temple after the defeat of the Greeks and the miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting eight days. Due to this connection with oil, many of the foods associated with Hanukkah are fried. Dairy is also used in or on Hanukkah foods to serve as a reminder of the story of Judith defeating an enemy leader with cheese and wine. Some of the Hanukkah foods we display in the Robinson-Rose building in honor of this holiday include latkes (fried potato pancakes), sour cream, suganiyot (jelly doughnuts), and applesauce.
Louis Rose was a prominent Jewish citizen of Old Town San Diego. He was born near Hanover, Germany in 1807 and became a citizen of the United States in 1846. He moved to San Diego in 1850, becoming the first Jewish person to settle in early San Diego. Rose was an active member of the Jewish community in San Diego. He helped to organize the first Jewish congregation, which became Congregation Beth Israel. He also hosted High Holy Day services in his house and gave five acres of land for a sacred burial ground in what is now Point Loma. Louis Rose purchased the house of James W. Robinson in 1868 after Robinson’s death. The building was reconstructed in 1989 by California State Parks and now serves as the Robinson-Rose Visitor Center of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Rose was beloved by many early San Diegans as can be seen by the many places named after him (Rose Canyon, Rose Point, Roseville [Point Loma]).

There were many festive traditions in the 1800s during the holiday season. Cascarones were a popular celebratory item used for many occasions throughout Alta California. To make a cascarón, an egg is hollowed out by poking a hole in the top, and the contents of the egg are then drained out. The shell is decorated in festive colors, filled with confetti or small toys, and the hole is covered with a small piece of paper. Occasionally, they were even filled with rose water or perfume. The cascarón was either thrown at someone or cracked over their head in celebration. When you smash a cascarón on someone’s head it is a sign of affection and you say, “¡Viva la fiesta!” These festive eggs can be seen throughout the museums in the park on several different holiday occasions.
Christmas crackers were another popular item during the holiday season. These fun-filled, colorful crackers were often placed at the dinner table or given out at parties. Two people would pull on each side to pop open the cracker and reveal what was inside. Often times they were filled with confetti, sweets, messages, and small toys. During the holiday season they are spread throughout the casas in the park including the parlor of the McCoy house and on the tables of the Commercial Restaurant, also known as La Casa de Machado y Silvas.

Early San Diego Christmas decorations looked much different than what we know today. There was no Christmas tree, no reindeer, no wreaths, no holly or mistletoe, and no Santa Claus. But there were still some recognizable Christmas traditions that can be seen today, such as the nativity on display in the Casa de Machado y Stewart Museum. The corn husk nativity is a great example of the materials used to decorate. Fresh greens were hard to come by in early San Diego as they would have to come all the way from the Cuyamaca forest. Instead of going through the hassle to retrieve fresh decorations, families took to creating their own out of everyday items, like corn husks.
The popular holiday plant, the poinsettia, could be seen throughout the homes in Old Town as well. A native of New Spain, the plant was known to grow wild around the port of La Paz and was likely brought to San Diego in the late 1700s. In 1828, Joel Poinsett, the first ambassador of Mexico, sent a package of seeds back to his home in South Carolina, thus giving the flower its name. There are still poinsettia trees growing in some of the older neighborhoods of San Diego. Today the plants can be seen decorating the altar inside the sala of La Casa de Estudillo.

Piñatas were a huge part of Christmas celebrations all throughout San Diego in the 19th century. The original piñatas were clay pots, covered in colorful paper. The piñata was stuffed with various favors including candy, toys, and confetti. Children and adults would take turns batting at the pot as it hung suspended from a rope. The festivities would continue until the pot was broken and the contents of the piñata spilled out all over the ground. Traditionally, the piñata had seven cones protruding out of a round center. The seven cones represented the seven deadly sins, the pot in the center represented evil and the candy or items on the inside represented the temptations of that evil. The person was blindfolded to represent faith and they were spun around while members of the crowd sang and shouted to demonstrate the disorientation that temptation created. In the end the piñata was broken, and all were rewarded with the contents inside for maintaining their faith. Piñatas can usually be seen hanging from the veranda of La Casa de Estudillo during the holiday season.

Common holiday foods enjoyed in Old Town San Diego included buñuelos (fried sweet tortillas) and tamales. Tamales were generally reserved for holiday celebrations and often times meant more to the community than just a food. The process of making tamales was a community affair. Women would gather to laugh and share stories while making tamales, and still do today. In addition, the traditional fried sweet tortillas or buñuelos were a Christmas dainty enjoyed for days during the holiday season.
Try making your own buñuelos at home this holiday season! You will need:
• 3 cups of flour
• 1 tablespoon of sugar
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 egg
• ½ cup of milk
• 2 cups fat
Sift flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar into a bowl. Add well-beaten egg and milk, a little at a time. Knead until elastic. Divide dough into two-inch balls and roll out into thin five-inch round cakes. Prick with fork. Deep fry one at a time until they are golden in color.
• 1 cup of sugar
• 2 cups of water
• 2 teaspoons aniseed
Bring water and aniseed to a boil. Add sugar and make a syrup to be poured over the hot buñuelos.

Singing and dancing were a huge part of the Las Posadas celebrations. Individuals would sing songs and play instruments as the celebration moved through the streets and into a new casa or “inn” each night. Guitars, violins, and the harp were popular instruments during the 19th century. The use of these instruments combined with singing originated from the missions and have inspired our present-day mariachi music. The traditional dances known today were not a part of the Mexican identity until after the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800’s. These traditional folk dances became widespread after the war ended in 1821 as a tool to evoke feelings of patriotism and liberty. The Waltz also became a town favorite in the 19th century.

Have you ever heard of the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement C. Moore? You probably have, but most people know it as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” or just “The Night Before Christmas.” This poem was first published anonymously in a newspaper in December 1823, and Moore didn’t say he wrote it until 1844.