MEXICO CITY — This Christmas season, children who visit Mexico City's central plaza can skate on a gigantic ice rink, build a snowman and have their picture taken near a towering, Pepsi-sponsored Christmas tree.
They can even lob snowballs at each other — so long as they wear helmets.
It's all part of the city's free, government-coordinated holiday program that underscores an emerging trend in Mexico: Christmas is being Americanized.
Guess who the city invited to perform a concert to kick off the Christmas season?
Pop star Britney Spears sang her hits at a Dec. 4 show by the city’s Monument to the Revolution before an audience of some 60,000 people.
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Despite Mexico's 84 percent Catholic population, no one seemed scandalized that the scantily-clad Spears, known for her sexual innuendo, participated in the holiday celebrations.
“My rejection is that I won’t go see this woman singing pop,” says Roberto Sosa, the director of a pastorela, a traditional play depicting the birth of Jesus and the battle between good and evil.
“But it’s not a conflict, we’re not in a fight.”
Likewise, the city’s winter wonderland activities garnered little criticism.
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“The church is not against all of that,” says one nun selling pastries, flan and other sweets outside the San Francisco de Asis Church near the ice rink. “It’s happiness and the anticipation for the arrival of the man that is our savior.”
Just a few weeks earlier, the national government — in cooperation with some major Mexican business and trade associations — launched a merchandising program copying US Black Friday. For four days, many retailers offered discounts hoping to draw deal-hungry shoppers and stimulate Christmas sales.
Even officials acknowledge they sometimes mimic the Americans’ propensity for commercialized pomp.
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"We have a great commercial exposure that comes from other countries," says Mario Miguel Carrillo Huerta, head of the government's holiday initiative.
Some American images are old hat. When Sears opened here in the 1940s, it introduced Mexicans to the department-store Santa Claus. Coca-Cola, which arrived in Mexico in 1926, also helped commercialize the image of Santa, says Julio Moreno, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco.
"The core of Coca-Cola advertising is that you're selling happiness, you're selling memorable moments," says Moreno, who's writing a book about Coca-Cola in Latin America. "That message, regardless of how it's going to be conveyed — whether it's in Mexico, South America, Africa or Asia — those principles are universal."
The sources of American influence are no secret. Since the 1970s, Mexicans have been exposed increasingly to American movies, music and television shows, familiarizing themselves with snowy landscapes, winter sports games and classic American Christmas customs.
"There’s definitely been that interaction and exposure," says Moreno. "Going to see Britney Spears is just a testament of that."
Some old traditions still thrive. Last year, the government arranged for more than 300 bakeries to prepare Rosca de Reyes, a pastry consumed on the day of the Three Kings, the day celebrating the arrival of the three wisemen at the site of Jesus’ birth, for the public.
And many Mexicans still host pre-Christmas posadas, or parties where guests whack piñatas and eat traditional foods like buñuelos, or fried pastries.
Rosa Isabel Rosalas Zavala brought her two young sons to the ice rink. She said that she grew up in the city’s historic center, and remembers coming to this plaza to hear Christmas songs, admire the decorations and join in a huge posada. Yet, she doesn’t miss the old celebrations.
“It’s good that we modernized it. We’re sharing other things with our children,” she says.