As a Mexican, December is only incidentally about Christmas for me. There’s just so many more cooler holiday traditions I get to partake in.
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
The feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe every December 12. Las Posadas, the nine days leading up to Christmas Eve when neighborhoods re-create Joseph and Mary looking for lodging on their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Tamales. So. Many. Tamales.
But there’s another cherished holiday ritual among us Mexicanos that’s ubiquitous across the United States and visible all year yet may forever remain a Mexican-only thing: the giving and receiving of mass-produced calendarios de varilla.
These calendars aren’t the squat, brick-like ones with an inspirational quote or a Far Side cartoon for every day of the year that sat next to your office phone (back when you had an office phone and an office), or the ones as large as your desk that you use more for doodling or as a place mat for your lunch. Calendarios de varilla hang on walls at restaurants, businesses, and especially homes. The top is a simple metal length (varilla means “rod”) with an eyehole through which you drive in a tack or a nail; the bottom features tear-away sheets that usually feature two months, their lunar cycles, and the names of the Catholic saint associated with every day.
It’s the middle, however, that makes Mexican calendars so beloved: artwork reproduced on glossy paper that immediately prettifies any wall. Photos of iconic landmarks like the Angel of Independence in Mexico City or heroes like Pancho Villa. Intricate maps of Mexican states. Paintings of religious themes (Jesus and the Sacred Heart), Mexican legends (an Aztec warrior holding his dying love, with the twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl named after them looming in the background), or beautiful women in any number of alluring yet chaste poses.
Below each piece of art are the name, address, and phone number of a business. Thousands of these businesses across California have handed calendars out over the past couple of weeks, often rolled up and held in place by a rubber band, for free to their customers.
“People will come in, roll out the one that we give them, see the image, and say, ‘I want a different one,’” says Monica Ramirez with a laugh. She and her family own La Princesita, a tortilleria in East Los Angeles, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and won my most recent KCRW tortilla tournament. La Princesita has already handed out all of the 7,000 calendars it commissioned—Ramirez’s favorite features the patron saint of storekeepers, San Martin Caballero (known as Saint Martin of Tours in English).
“We’re fine with people wanting the calendar they want,” Ramirez explains. “It’s our little way of saying thank you to our loyal customers.”
Alberto Bañuelos handed out 1,000 calendars at his mini-chain, Burritos La Palma, with locations in Boyle Heights, El Monte, and Santa Ana. He increased his order from last year’s batch of 200: “I was chastised for not doing more!”
Bañuelos’s calendar features an image of the Cathedral Basilica of Zacatecas, the state from which his parents—and mine—hail.
“It’s such a flex thing to get a calendar,” Bañuelos says. “People enjoy the novelty of it, but it’s not an ‘I went to Vegas and I brought you this T-shirt’ kind of thing. It’s a tradition that our parents and grandparents partook in both here and back in Mexico.”
Although many companies make calendarios de varilla in Mexico and the United States, the biggest is Calendarios Landin. Last year, it shipped about 1.35 million calendars to the United States alone. It also owns the rights to the genre’s most famous artist, Jesús Helguera, whose bright, pastoral scenes are instantly recognizable to Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike.
“Do you have more than half an hour?” asked Calendarios Landin CEO Julian Urquiza when we talked over Zoom. I did, so he proceeded to take me on a virtual two-and-a-half-hour tour of the company’s Museo del Calendario, Mucal, in the colonial city of Querétaro, including the history of calendars from prehistoric times to our Outlook and Google present.
“Americans do good calendars, but they’re not Mexican,” he said proudly, describing them as a vehicle to “difundir la mexicanidad”—spread Mexicanness.
“Let’s get rid of the meridians on maps, and let’s instead put the restaurant that Jose and Yolanda have in Sausalito, or Milpitas, or San Jose,” Urquiza continued, using an example of an archetypal multigenerational Mexican immigrant family in the United States. “That line connects them with the population where they were originally from. A calendar is an anchor with their roots. It regenerates this nostalgia—‘I want to live there, but I can’t anymore, but I wish I could.’”
Calendarios Landin began to ship its products to the United States in the 1980s; today, it sells to every state from its U.S. headquarters in San Antonio. Clients vary from mom-and-pop stores to multimillion-dollar companies to the guy with an Helguera image of a non-volcano Aztec warrior tattooed across his entire back Urquiza met in San Diego’s Barrio Logan.
“He didn’t pay royalty fees, right?” asked one of Urquiza’s employees during our Zoom chat.
“No!” the CEO said with a forgiving shrug.
One of Calendarios Landin’s most prominent U.S. clients is bean seller Rancho Gordo, which ordered 35,000 calendars this year. Rancho Gordo owner Steve Sando hands them out to customers at his Napa storefront and to members of his wildly popular Bean Club, although he began to charge members of the latter group a dollar for them when he heard that some people threw theirs away. “Heartbreaking!” he says half seriously, half not. “What a waste.”
Sando remembers first seeing calendarios de varilla at a stationery store in San Francisco that had cut out the images of older calendars and sold them as stand-alone art. He’s always gone with an Helguera image for Rancho Gordo’s calendars—“They’re such great propaganda pieces for the Mexican lifestyle”—and chose for this year a piece called El Regalo (The gift), which features a grinning campesino walking into his kitchen, where his sitting wife is making fresh tortillas.
I know it well. It hangs at my wife’s store.
“They don’t make us any money, but that’s never been the point,” Sando says. “I love them, thousands of people love them, and we’re definitely never going to stop.”•