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December Holidays. Cinema and Mexican Tradition | Part Two: Christmas, its Atmospheres and Santa Claus

By: Rafael Aviña

Mexican Christmas celebrations used to be replete with Christian references – the Nativity scenes, the Christ Child´s lullaby, the prayers, the carols and the family dinners. At the same time, a more frivolous, showy universe existed: a nocturnal Mexico that existed from the 1940s to the 1970s, which featured colourful Christmas lights that wowed the residents of the Capital, who strolled along the streets of the Centre, and down Paseo de la Reforma. It goes without saying that Mexican cinema mirrored these moments of wonder.

Avenida Juárez, CDMX,1964.

Avenida Juárez, CDMX,1964.

One of the most comical and moving scenes about Christmas appears in Rogelio A. González’s El vagabundo (1953), in which Tin Tan plays a starving homeless man who imagines devouring a turkey he sees on a sideboard, or a dog that transforms into a delicious ham sandwich before his eyes. By change, he receives a 20 cent coin and immediately runs to a taco stand… “I want everything: ear, beef lung, tongue, uterus, book, pencil…” and he receives a miniscule taco. He licks his lips and is about to eat the taco, when he sees a street child standing next to him. His good heart makes him share the taco, which the child devours in just a few bites. “I told you to just take a few bites”, Tin Tan tells the child. “I finished it all in just two”, replies the child.

In Julian Soler’s La visita que no tocó el timbre (1954), Manolo Fábregas and Abel Salazar play two brothers who find a baby on their doorstep on Christmas Eve. They try to get rid of it, but end up growing fond of the little one. The message is clear: charity, solidarity, humanity and destiny go beyond material things. Something similar happens in Rafael Baldeón’s Cuando regrese mamá (1959), also set on Christmas Eve, in which a woman is run over and dies as she brings her children a Christmas tree. The orphans´ nanny, a student of law and great friend of their mother´s, ends up adopting the siblings in a story that highlights Christmas spirit, kindness and empathy.

Cuando regrese mamá (1959, dir. Rafael Baledón)

Cuando regrese mamá (1959, dir. Rafael Baledón)

The Christmas season also links two films about antagonistic families. In Mi esposa y la otra (1951, Alfredo B. Crevann) – a traditional melodrama about a small house in which an adulterer (Ramón Gay) sees his dreams of being an exemplary father and lover-husband frustrated before a twist of fate in which he hands over his lover (Marga López) and his children to his inveterate gambler friend (Arturo de Córdova) who, in turn, ends up fascinated with his new family after Christmas dinner and midnight Mass. In Una cena de Navidad, an episode directed by Pablo Leder in Pubertinaje (1971), a father dreams of dressing as a woman, a son longs for transvestite adventures, a daughter wants to be a saintly singer in a temple and a younger son wishes to stab his whole family during Christmas Dinner.

The atmosphere of Christmas in Mexico City on film is as melancholic as it is evocative of an era: a time suspended in memory thanks to cinema, combining celebration and joy with moments of sadness and helplessness, as can be seen in scenes from Días de otoño (1963, Roberto Gavaldón), in which Pina Pellicer is the living image of loneliness, devastated by a dehumanizing city at a time of supposed happiness.

Ensayo de una noche de bodas (1967, José María Fernández Unsaín), starring Julissa and Julián Pastor, opens with images of Christmas lights at the Zócalo in Mexico City (Happy New Year 1968), views of Paseo de la Reforma and the Chapultepec Forest. The exceptional Los caifanes (1967, Juan Ibáñez), written by Carlos Fuentes, tells the story of a meeting between a young, bourgeois couple with four neighbourhood ‘caifanes’ (the equivalent in English would be “cool dude”) in the rarefied atmosphere of Mexico City adorned with Christmas lights in 1966. A cameo by Carlos Monsiváis as a drunk Santa Claus whose wig is burned at a taqueria, is outstanding.

Los Caifanes (1967, Juan Ibañez)

Los caifanes (1967, dir. Juan Ibañez)

The laughter of a mechanical Santa Claus outside a Sears store on Insurgentes Avenue in the Roma neighbourhood is confused with the screams of Meche Barba when David Silva is shot in in the shadows of a neighbourhood in Eterna agonía (1949, Julián Soler). The same santa can be seen at the beginning of El papelerito (1959, Agustín P. Delgado), a film about street children. His laughter resounds before the gaze of Ismael Pérez “Poncianito”, who stares into the window of Sears at the toys he will never have.

A more delusional image of the bearded, red-suited character appears in Santa Claus (1959, Rene Cardona), one of the strangest Christmas stories, in which a good-natured Santa (José Elías Moreno) is confronted by a sort of lottery devil named Precio (the dancer José Luis Aguirre “Trotsky”) in a fantastical family tale that includes exuberant scenography by the Barcelona-born Francisco Marco Chillet. We end this piece with Navidad S.A. (2008, Fernando Rovzar), a film that swings between parody, action and comedy. In the film, a warehouse Santa Claus – played by Pedro Armendáriz Jr. – tries to convince an incredulous young boy that he is, in fact, Santa. A sign that Christmas celebrations are home to miracles and good fortune.

Santa Claus (1959, dir. René Cardona)

Santa Claus (1959, dir. René Cardona)

Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!