Today’s the winter solstice, so …. Happy birthday, Huitzilopochtli! Mā panquetz!
For the Nahuas (“Aztecs”), the winter solstice was the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, patron god of the Mexica, lord of the sun and of combat.
It was a time of great celebration.
In the Mesoamerican calendar, this day fell at the end of the fifteenth 20-day month, Panquetzaliztli, meaning “lifting of banners,” from “pamitl” (“flag” or “banner” in its root form “pan-”) and “quetza” (“place” or “lift”). It marked the end of autumn, when the sun seemed weak.
To celebrate, the Daughters of Huitzilopochtli (a group of unmarried young women who had lived for a year in the temples) would bake a “tzoalli” or life-sized figure of Huitzilopochtli from amaranth dough and toasted maize, kneaded together with maguey nectar.
The tzoalli was decked out in paper garments by priests and then carried in a grand procession to the Great Temple. There the Sons of Huitzilopochtli received the effigy along with four hundred amaranth “bones” also prepared for the occasion.
The people of Tenochtitlan gathered in the sacred precinct. There would be much singing and dancing and praising the god, and then by the end of the day, the priests would consecrate the effigy and four hundred bones, declaring them the “flesh and bone” of Huitzilopochtli himself.
Everyone present knew that the next day was special. From sunup to sundown on the shortest day of the year, the Mexica would only eat pieces of baked amaranth broken off the effigy and the bones. No one drank water. This ritual was called “netehuatzaliztli” (“people drying themselves out”). It was meant to strengthen the sun.
After sunset the Daughters and Sons of Huitzilopochtli participated in a great dance, after which they were freed from their obligations and allowed to marry. A priest would give a sort of sermon exhorting everyone to keep the Mexica Way.
Just before the solstice, people would have hung paper banners on fruit trees and other edible plants. During the festival, pulque and tortillas were offered up to show gratitude for the year’s harvest and to encourage the weaker winter sun to be steadfast and grow strong for another year.