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Music Education
Resources by Paula Downes, a lot of music by Andrew Downes

Pilgrims in Mexico

The second of eight cross-curricular lesson plans on Ballads for Christmas for Middle School, Secondary School, High School, KS3 children, with songs and animations, poetry analysis and writing, music analysis, art projects, documentary/film-making and more.

Pilgrims in Mexico
Animation by Paula Downes, music by Andrew Downes, Traditional Mexican poetry.

The Poem
'Who knocks at my door, so late in the night?'
'We are pilgrims, without shelter, and we want only a place to rest.'
'Go somewhere else and disturb me not again.'
'But the night is very cold. We have come from afar, and we are very tired.'
'But who are you? I know you not.'
'I am Joseph of Nazareth, a carpenter, and with me is Mary, my wife, who will be the mother of the Son of God.'
'Then come into my humble home, and welcome! And may the Lord give shelter to my soul when I leave this world!'

Poetry Background
"Pilgrims in Mexico" is a Traditional Mexican poem about Las Posadas, a Mexican Christmas ritual commemorating Joseph and Mary's attempt to find lodging in Bethlehem. Watch this video about Las Posadas.

Read this account of the history of Mexico and Las Posadas from

The mighty civilizations of the Mayas, Toltecs, Chichimecas, and, finally, the Aztecs ruled Mexico in their turn. Spanish explorers discovered this strange new world in the 16th century.  In 1519, Hernán Cortés led an expeditionary army to conquer the Aztec empire - and capture its fantastic treasury of gold.  Sixteen years later, Mexico became a Spanish colony, which it remained until 1821.

With the conquistadores came Catholic missionaries, bringing their Christian faith to the pagan land.  By a strange coincidence, the Aztecs celebrated the birth of their god Huitzilopochtli during the last days of December, around the winter solstice, at about the same time as Christmas.

According to legend, Huitzilopochtli's mother, Coatlicue, was struck by a plumed ball of feathers while she was sweeping the steps of the temple, and in due course gave birth to the new god.  Her other sons refused to believe the story of the supernatural conception and decided to kill her, but Huitzilopochtli appeared, armed with a fire serpent, and destroyed his scheming brothers.

The festival celebrating Huizilopochtli's birth was the most important one of the Aztec year.  It began at midnight and continued through the following day, with much singing, dancing, and speechmaking.  The Indians paraded under elaborate arches of roses, wearing their finest attire adorned with brightly tinted plumes.  Special foods were prepared, including small idols made of corn paste and cactus honey, and huge bonfires in courtyards and on the flat roofs of the houses lit up the sky for miles around.

The missionaries, noting the similarities between their own commemoration of the birth of Christ and the Aztecs' December observances, found it a relatively simple matter to substitute a new faith for the old.  The ancient god of war with his cruel tradition of blood sacrifices was replaced by a gentle one of love and hope, represented by a tiny babe, the Christ Child.

The first Christmas in old Mexico was celebrated in 1538 by Fray Pedro de Gante.  He invited all the Indians for twenty leagues around Mexico City to attend, and they came in droves, some by land, others by water.  Even the sick managed to come, carried in hammocks.  The Indians loved the new feast day, and adopted it wholeheartedly, adding their own colorful touches of flowers and feathers.

So many assembled for the Christmas Masses that they spilled over into the courtyard of the church and caused such a jam that those in front were in danger of being smothered.  Those outside followed the ritual just as attentively as the ones indoors, however, and one padre later related that the natives would not miss a midnight Mass for anything in the world.

The numbers of enthusiastic new churchgoers continued to grow over the years.  In 1587, Fray Diego de Soria, prior of the Convent of San Agustín Acolman, tried to alleviate the overcrowded situation.  He asked the Pope in Rome for permission to hold the Christmas Masses out-of-doors in the church courtyard.  It was given, and the services - held from December 16th to the 24th - were called Misas de Aquinaldo.

Many of Mexico's present-day Christmas traditions were originally introduced during the colonial era as a means of teaching Christian morals and the Bible to the Indians.  The posadas, a nine-night series of processions reenacting Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem, began in this way.  Medieval European passion plays were adapted by the missionaries for the natives, and sometimes even translated into Nahuatl, the Aztec language.  These developed into the Christmas dramas called pastorelas.  The 16th-century priests also brought the custom of smashing a gaily decorated pot called the piñata to the New World, using it as a finale to the Christmas Masses.

Religious paintings and sculpture brought to Mexico in the 1500's very often portrayed scenes of the Nativity and other Biblical events.  The Indians greatly admired these works and eventually began to create their own interpretations of the old scenes.  The Virgin Mary's face took on a darker hue; bone structure - and dress - became more and more Indian in appearance.

The custom of erecting a Christmas manger scene, called a nacimiento, was probably not introduced in the New World until a bit later, in the 1700's.  In any case, the small nacimiento figures, originally European in feature and dress, quickly developed their own native characteristics, too.

In time, many of the rites once held in the churches moved to people's homes and into the public squares.  By the middle of the 1600's, images and paintings of the Virgin Mary or the Three Kings could be seen in the windows of almost every house during the holiday season.  Lights shone from every window, and balconies were illuminated with candles, protected from the wind by glass bells.  Some homeowners erected magnificent altars in front of their houses and hung gorgeous rugs and tapestries from the balconies.  The rosary was recited aloud in the streets.  People met and mingled in the main squares, enjoying the decorations and visiting busy market stalls.

Now watch this video about Catholicism in Mexico: 

Documentary Task
Present the information above with images and music. You can film your presentation.

Music Analysis
Watch this documentary about Mexico's Mountain Music:

Now listen to 'Pilgrims in Mexico' again and notice the Mexican influences:
1.The irregular time signatures of the introduction - try to tap a regular beat or try to dance to it to understand.
2.The idea of using 'falsetto' for Joseph to show how desperate he is.
3.The imitation of the Mexican guitar by the harp accompanying Joseph with rhythmic chords.
4.The cross-rhythms between Joseph and the rhythmic 'guitar' - notice where the natural stresses of the words are to be able to feel this.

Art Project
Make your own piñata! Watch the tutorial below.

Move on to The Virgin's Cradle Hymn

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Music Education
Resources by Paula Downes, a lot of music by Andrew Downes

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