Looking a lot like Christmas

In this tiny Mexican town with an unpronounceable name, Christmas is a serious year-round business

If you get to visit this lovely town, and you should, you need to remember two things. Its name is Tlalpujahua and that’s pronounced something like “Tlal-poo-háh-wa.” Practice, so if instead going through Atlacomulco on the way to Tlalpujahua, you end up in either Temascalcingo or Zinacantepec, you can ask for directions.

The second pointer is never to utter the word “China” (Chee-nah) while you’re admiring the mind-boggling selection of handmade Christmas ornaments in Tlalpujahua. In a lame attempt at humor I asked one of the vendors, “¿Hecho en China?” Without a hint of a smile he replied, “¡No! ¡Aquí!,” as in, “No! Here!, with his right index finger pointing to the ground. Not amused.

The ornaments on the two boxes on the upper right-hand corner sold for $6 to $10 dollars a dozen, or probably for $4 each at Macy’s after-Christmas sale.

Indeed, an estimated 70 percent of the 25,000 residents in the municipality, 4,000 of whom live in-town, make a living manufacturing Christmas ornaments, largely handblown globes that are called “esferas.” Some are garden-variety Christmas tree ornaments, but many showcase exquisite and intricate imagination and craftsmanship. And for six weeks before Christmas, dozens, probably hundreds, of vendors sell their creations during “La Feria de la Esfera.”

The economy of Tlalpujahua, tucked away at 8,000 ft. altitude in heavily wooded mountains in the nearby state of Michoacán, has gone through three distinct periods.

Christmas toilet seat covers, anyone?

There was the Golden Age, when for sixty years nearby gold and silver mines employed the locals and paid for the town’s baroque churches and other luxe touches that now seem extravagant for such a small town. In the 1930s the mines were nationalized and eventually shut down in 1959, a classic case of the clumsy hand of the government choking a goose that was literally laying golden eggs. Tlalpujahua’s economy nosedived.

A second phase no one talks much about is the Stone Age, which still provides employment to dozens of small workshops of cantera stone carvers, who sell their creations along the road to Tlalpujahua.

The town’s economy renaissance is the work of one entrepreneur who after living in Chicago during the 1950s returned to Mexico and set up a Christmas tree workshop in the capital that sputtered along until he discovered handmade glass ornaments. Eureka. That idea clicked and he moved his operations to Tlalpujahua in the late 1960s, where it has prospered at an almost miraculous pace. The goose came back to life and has been laying since.

Glass globe with lights and (paper) Monarch butterflies. About $7.50 dollars.

Today the original company employs over 1,000 locals and, along with smaller factories, Tlalpujahua produces nearly 40 million Christmas ornaments, most of them for export. This small town is in fact the largest producer of esferas in Latin America and one of the largest in the world. So when you check a box of ornaments in the U.S. it’s far more likely to say “Hecho en México” than China.

Apart from the Christmas decoration frenzy this time of the year, tiny Tlalpujahua can also compete in the colonial charm derby with other government-designated “Pueblos Mágicos” in Mexico, such as, ahem, San Miguel de Allende, which despite its undeniable historical importance, sometimes seems perched too close to the cliff of runaway development and prettification.

Unfortunately, as is the case with some of our excursions, Stew and I didn’t allow enough time to properly explore Tlalpujahua. We were there overnight and got caught in the weekend mob of shoppers and visitors. Hardly enough time for an encore visit to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary nearby, which should be at the peak of migration right now. Or the shuttered gold mines and museum outside of town. My friend Jennifer, who lives in Morelia, mentioned a few other sights we missed.

But its location only about four hours from San Miguel—assuming we don’t miss the cutoff at Atlacomulco and end up in Tarímbaro—bodes well for a return visit, ideally not in the middle of the Christmas rush.

Other images:

8 thoughts on “Looking a lot like Christmas

  1. othmarsingen

    We took a weekend trip to Tlalpujahua some years ago, and I loved the town. It’s one of my favorite “Pueblos Mágicos”. The main church is amazing, and we had a lovely dinner at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the town at sunset. Part of the demise of the mining industry was due to a landslide in 1937 which buried one third of the town.
    I am now back in Ohio after six weeks in Mexico City. I will return in time for “Día de los Reyes”.


  2. Tlalpujahua is lovely and tiny. What it lacks in size it makes up in charm. Our visit there has got me interested in visiting other Pueblos Magicos, but it would be nice to allow enough time to talk to a few of the locals. The landslide shut the mine, but I understand that the government nationalization and lack of investment funds to modernize and run the mine is what ultimately doomed it. I wonder, though, if there’s still gold and silver in there, why doesn’t someone go in and restart the mine.


        1. othmarsingen

          No, it was a separate gold mining town from Tlalpujahua. It is across the state border from Tlalpujahua in Estado de México. There was a lot of investment from British companies in the 1800s, so a few of the houses actually look English, and there is a former Anglican Church. There is also an opera house that you can tour, and an ornate city hall. Worth a visit sometime.


  3. Karen Quinn

    We heard about this town from some other SMA friends who visited there a few years ago…and have it on our list as a place we’d love to see. Let us know if you decide to visit again…would love to hitch a ride!


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