Shepherds, Devils, and the Birth of a Pastorelas Tradition

Mexican pastorelas are a unique Christmas tradition blending pre-Hispanic prophecy and Spanish religious theater. Shepherds journey to worship the Christ Child, facing temptations from mischievous devils along the way. Despite near-extinction, the tradition was revived and now thrives.

Shepherds, Devils, and the Birth of a Pastorelas Tradition
The devil is in the details! He's the comic relief of Mexican pastorelas.

The pastorela, Mexico's beloved Christmas tradition, shimmers with secrets. Its true origins are veiled by the time of the Spanish conquest and a prophecy older still. They say audiences in indigenous New Spain embraced not Christmas itself, but the Epiphany, the Feast of Kings. Perhaps some ancient intuition resonated – a shared sense of a world about to change forever.

That sense of destiny thrums through the heart of pastorelas. Picture the scene set by the Jesuit playwrights of the 16th century: Shepherds, those humble figures from the Nativity, dance as they once did in medieval Europe. But these shepherds hold more than the joy of the Christ Child's birth. Woven into their songs is an echo of the comet, that portent of upheaval foretold in pre-Hispanic times, mirroring the Star of Bethlehem, yet tinged with a uniquely Mexican foreboding.

Forget the silent, shuffling shepherds of your childhood nativity play. Pastorelas are alive with sound. The shepherds' adoration is a mitote, an ancient dance transformed, feet stamping, staffs drumming a joyful rhythm that speaks of cultures in vibrant collision. Even their rustic instruments sing a tale of transformation. Were the flutes once made of bone, their melodies carrying echoes of rituals held under an unfamiliar moon?

These weren't mere lessons dressed up as plays. They were, as scholar José Rojas Garcidueñas notes, acts of devotion. But who were the first shepherds on those makeshift stages? Indigenous performers adopting roles wholly foreign to them? Or was the tradition already morphing, as whispers of ancient dances blended with the hymns of the conquerors?

This potent clash – between prophecy and evangelism, tradition and imposition – should make for a grim spectacle, yet it doesn't. The genius of the pastorela lies in its embrace of the human within the spiritual. Yes, shepherds journey towards Bethlehem, but their path is paved with song and sly humor. Temptation dances in their way, a grinning devil with a tune that's almost too catchy. Even the gluttonous Bartolo, the archetype of human foibles, brings a warmth and a knowing chuckle.

The centuries changed Mexico, and nearly snuffed out the pastorela. But in its revival pulsed the same vibrant spirit of adaptation. Composers infused its songs with mariachi horns and the rhythms of regional dances. Modern playwrights crafted satires disguised as shepherds' tales, finding in this centuries-old tradition a surprisingly sharp tool.

Today, you'll hear pastorelas in a village square and the grand theaters of Mexico City. Their music is a soundtrack to Christmas, its infectious joy infused with whispers of the past. It's a testament to a nation built on layers — Aztec temples under Baroque churches, ancient melodies woven into new refrains. That's the magic of the pastorela. It's a Christmas hymn sung with the defiant heart of a culture that refused to be extinguished, a celebration born of upheaval, echoing with prophecy, and forever touched with a sly and uniquely Mexican grin.

A shepherd stands in mixed clothing, looking up at a starry night, representing the cultural blend within Mexican pastorelas.
Pastorelas mirror a Mexico in flux, where ancient prophecy meets new tradition.

The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of the Pastorelas

Meet Joan Cigorondo, a 16th-century Jesuit with a poet's heart and a playwright's pen. His shepherds? More likely to discuss philosophy over a campfire than tend a flock. Think of Cigorondo's works as musical meditations, echoing the idyllic landscapes of European literature, not the dusty paths to Bethlehem. Yet, these were the seeds from which Mexico's beloved pastorelas would one day bloom.

Over the centuries, the pastorela transformed. From the courtyards of colonial schools to bustling plazas, it became the people's play. The music evolved too. The shepherds' songs likely shed their European airs, absorbing the rhythms of the land beneath their feet. Perhaps a mournful melody of indigenous origin found new purpose, interwoven with a Spanish hymn, creating a sonic structure as complex as Mexico itself.

Then came the 19th century, with its European-obsessed elite. The pastorela, with its humble ways and religious heart, was unfashionable. But here's where the story takes a joyous, defiant turn. The pastorela didn't die; it went underground. Peasants kept the tradition alive, melodies and dialogues passed down like heirlooms. Think of secret concerts held in moonlit fields, the shepherds' voices raised in stubborn celebration.

When revival came, it wasn't stuffy or somber. Playwrights seized the pastorela as their own. Those mischievous devils, tempting shepherds with all too familiar sins, began sounding suspiciously like thinly-veiled critiques aimed at the powers that be. The pastorela had teeth again, its folksy tunes the perfect vehicle for sly satire.

But at its core, the pastorela was always about song. Imagine the hermit's cajoling of the sleepy Bartolo, likely set to a jaunty, comic tune that could get an entire village chuckling. Each devilish temptation might boast a distinctive melody – a sultry tango to represent lust, a jaunty march for pride, a mournful waltz for despair. And those shepherds, their voices rising in simple, heartfelt hymns as they finally reached Bethlehem…that, right there, is the enduring power of the genre.

 Collage showcasing the evolution of pastorela costumes: 16th-century European shepherd, traditional Mexican peasant shepherd, and a modern, stylized devil.
From Renaissance plays to modern satire, the pastorela's costumes tell its story.

Mariano Osorno and the Pastorela's Second Act

In the days of Santa Ana, a maestro emerged – Mariano Osorno. They called him the 're-inventor' of the pastorela, but what he truly did was breathe new life into a beloved tradition. Year after year, Osorno captivated audiences with fresh pastorelas, penned by his own hand. His tales of shepherds, devils, and the journey to Bethlehem spread like wildfire, thanks to publishers like Antonio Venegas Arroyo, making the pastorela a cornerstone of the Mexican Christmas celebration.

But Osorno didn't spark a museum piece frozen in time. He ignited a creative explosion. Playwrights and composers couldn't resist. Soon, there was a pastorela for every taste, a testament to the form's irresistible mix of tradition and boundless possibility. Think of Fernández de Lizardi giving the genre a satirical edge in “The Most Venturous Night,” or the mischievous titles by Calvo and Urtusuástegui promising a riotous twist on the classic tale.

Today, the pastorela is alive with sound. Each theater group mounts its own, a blend of voices as diverse as Mexico itself. The shepherds' songs might echo the plaintive beauty of an ancient folk melody on one stage, while in a bustling city plaza, a pastorela explodes with the brass and verve of a mariachi band. The devils, meanwhile, are likely to have modern soundtracks to match their wiles. A dash of cumbia, a sly jazz motif – who knows what melodies those temptresses now wield?

The best part? You can find pastorelas that speak directly to the here and now. Political satire, sharp commentary on current events – all get woven into the shepherds' tales. Like those traveling players of medieval times, these modern-day troupes hold a sonic mirror up to their world. It's a testament to the genre's enduring power, rooted in a distant past yet forever blooming in the present.

Thankfully, amidst all this exuberant invention, traditional pastorelas endure. That's the beauty of this tradition – it's a mix where reverence and irreverence go hand in hand in perfect harmony, where the old shepherds' songs ring out clear amidst a joyful tide of innovation. The pastorela, once in danger of extinction, now hums with a healthy, defiant energy. Each December, it paints the soundscape of Mexico, reminding us that tradition at its best isn't static – it's as vibrant and unpredictable as the people who keep it alive.

In-text Citation: (Arellano Heredia, 2000, pp. 48-50)