Christmas is round and Mexican
t could have come straight out of the imagination of Tim Burton. In Tlalpujahua and Chignahuapan, nestled in the Michoacán and Puebla mountains, it is always Christmas. All year round, the inhabitants of these Mexican towns make the baubles that will adorn trees in thousands of homes worldwide. About 400 workshops produce more than 140 million baubles each year, using traditional methods. Practically the entire Vatican is decorated with their ornaments and most of the products are exported to the United States, Canada and the European Union.
As December draws nearer, the shining balls accumulate like veins of gold in a mine – fitting since the towns here share a mining past that, following closure of the mines in the 60s, had condemned them to decline and obscurity.
Monarch butterfly territory
The monarch butterfly, with its orange and black tones, travels more than 4,000km from Canada, to take refuge in the Michoacán mountains. From Tlalpujahua, you can go to the Sierra Chincua Sanctuary, where you can observe the natural spectacle of thousands of butterflies flooding the skies. This is the furthest-migrating insect species in the world.
Tlalpujahua conserves the Lady of Carmen, who, according to tradition, prevented the entire village from flooding following the collapse of two reservoirs saturated with waste from the mines. At the Shrine of Our Lady of Carmen, an 18th-century Franciscan gem adorned with tritons and sirens, the virgin’s image is proudly preserved, with stains from the tragedy.
Now is the time of complex, colourful machinery and patient artisans, who create orbs using the glass-blowing technique. They are the ones who look like tritons, with trumpets of lava to be transformed into balls, to later be painted, or have tiny nativity scenes inserted inside.
In Tlalpujahua, among the cobbled streets and clustered ornaments hanging outside the houses, there suddenly emerges La Casa de Santa Claus. Santa himself is waiting at the entrance, and inside you can see a representative sample of the baubles and ornaments manufactured in the town. At La Terraza, its rooftop restaurant, you can contemplate the carpet of lights that covers Tlalpujahua.
Chignahuapan, the gateway to another world
Surrounded by rivers, streams and underground lakes, Chignahuapan was the gateway to another dimension, according to pre-Hispanic tradition. To go through it, you had to cross the Chignahuapan river, accompanied by a sacred dog. The legend lives on in the town. When you cross the river, you go into another world: one of baubles, which gleam during the day and light up like fireflies at night.
Like Tlalpujahua, Chignahuapan is a member of the Pueblos Mágicos de Mexico (magical villages) network. Not only does it have remarkable churches, like Santiago Apóstol and Honguito (named after a petrified mushroom where you can see Jesus on the cross), but also an exuberant natural setting, since it’s set in the heart of monarch butterfly territory. Nearby, you will find Ajolotla lagoon and the Salto de Quetzalapa, a 200m-high waterfall. The town is also known for its thermal waters.
But, its main attraction is undoubtedly its Christmas baubles. Families travel from different corners of Mexico and the United States to fill their cases with baubles, to decorate their trees. Here, they produce more than 60 million a year, and you can visit the workshops to see then being made, providing the main source of local income. The most magical moment comes in November, when they celebrate the National Tree and Christmas Bauble Fair, showcasing up to 100 different types of bauble. Chignahuapan turns into a fairytale setting, sown with baubles and lights, and, if you are lucky, you might spot a cloud of orange butterflies making its way across the sky. It is indeed as if it were the gateway to another world.