A religious and historical synergy between Catholicism and indigenous practices gives Mexico the perfect cultural cocktail for a wide variety of festivals. Many are well known internationally, while others are yet to be largely recognised outside the country.
Day Of The Dead
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is arguably one of the most well-known Mexican festivals outside of the country, even before it was beamed across the silver screen in the opening scene of Spectre, the 2015 James Bond blockbuster. Although the film then plunges into the storyline, the busy scene featuring the holiday captured the world’s attention – so much so that a similar parade was started for the Day of the Dead in 2016.
Mexicans are a little bit obsessed with death, so the saying goes. Obsessed in a positive way, perhaps, or merely comfortable enough with death as a fact of life to celebrate, respect and party in honour of the lives their loved ones enjoyed before the grave. Detailed face-painting resembling skulls, decorations of skeletons as well as candles and flowers are well-recognised elements of this celebration. Interestingly, the festival’s roots come from a pre-Hispanic Aztec tradition honouring the dead, combined with the conquistadors’ strong Catholic beliefs, and is held on All Souls’ Day (November 2) – all of which exemplify the country’s acceptance of its dual European and indigenous roots.
The country’s independence day on September 16 marks the day when two Mexican revolutionaries urged their compatriots to rise up against the ruling Spanish. When clocks strike midnight on the 16th in town squares across the country, various mayors imitate the cry or grito made over two centuries ago by their forefathers.
The following day involves military and civilian parades, and a flypast intertwined with music, fireworks and certain typical dishes only eaten around the Independence Day season, such as chile en nogada, stuffed chilli pepper. This truly is the day when all Mexicans unite to celebrate the collective strength and courage of their country that has carried them through 200 years since independence.
Guadalupe To Reyes
Known to many foreigners as simply the Christmas period, celebrations at this time of year stretch from December 12 to January 6.
Día de Guadalupe is a religious holiday celebrating the day in December 1531 when Juan Diego, the first Roman Catholic indigenous saint of the Americas, cast eyes on the Virgin Mary.
This day is followed by consecutive Las Posadas parties from December 16 to December 24 leading up to Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Years Day. The festivities end with Three Kings’ Day, Reyes Magos, which celebrates the three wise men who arrived bearing gifts for baby Jesus. This series of events is a key part of Mexican culture, mainly because the challenge not only lies with drinking alcohol every day, but attending a social event for 25 consecutive days.
Festival Internacional Del Paste
Not every festival in the country is associated with ostentatious celebrations accompanied by long parades and music. Hidalgo, a usually quiet state in Mexico’s central east, has hosted the country’s annual Cornish Festival every October since 2009.
Colonised by English miners from Cornwall in the early 19th century, the small town of Real del Monte is the centre of a curious cultural fusion where miners brought Cornish pasties – paste in Spanish – as their snack of choice to the area’s gold and silver mines. While much more modest than many Mexican festivals, this celebration includes free concerts and music alongside a number of other Cornish-related activities, including the collective production of the world’s largest pasty, which involves the efforts of hundreds of local people. Tourists are also welcome to wander around the town’s Cornish Pasty Museum.
Feria Nacional Del Burro
Another unique festival – National Donkey Day – is hosted on May 1 every year by the small town of Otumba, just outside Mexico City. Here, over 40,000 people celebrate the unabated loyalty that donkeys have given humans in many aspects of life over the centuries.
The main event of the festival involves a parade where locals dress up their donkeys as bizarrely as possible for a walk through the village streets. This is complemented by donkey-related activities, stretching from donkey-shaped hot air balloons to donkey racing, donkey dancing and the crowning of a donkey queen. Like all of the best Mexican festivities, this day is accompanied by alcohol. On this occasion it is pulque, a typical Mexican drink concocted from the sap of an agave plant.
Celebrated by Roman Catholic populations throughout Latin America, this traditionally religious festival marking the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most important in the Christian calendar.
With a general lack of annual leave, Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is a welcome holiday. In addition to the religious significance of the holiday, this means large cities such as the capital become ghost towns as over 100m Mexicans pack every possible centimetre of beach on the country’s coast and other tourist locations. This is a great time to be in Mexico City to visit museums, but tourist centres such as Acapulco and Cancún are best left to the locals.
Cinco De Mayo
Unequivocally larger in the US than it is in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo – the fifth of May – marks the unlikely victory of the Mexican army over the French on May 5, 1862. Mexico was in a severe financial crisis and Napoleon III had come back to settle his debts and establish his own empire on Mexican territory. The French army was one of the strongest in the world, and three times larger than the 2000 Mexican men that had come to fight and protect the land. Although not the most important victory in the war, the Battle of Puebla was a morale boost for the Mexican people and bolstered their spirits for future victories.
Today it is celebrated in the city of Puebla with a number of civil and military parades, a re-enactment of the original battle and the president’s visit to the Mexican armed forces. This is followed in true Mexican style by concerts celebrating Mexican culture, typical food and piñatas... filled with mayonnaise.
October 12th is one of the more controversial holidays celebrated in Mexico, if not the region. It marks the day when Christopher Columbus first set foot on the American continent, and is now celebrated as an official public holiday in 19 countries across the Americas as well as in Spain.
Although there is a strong movement to abolish the holiday in some US states, it remains an important day in the Mexican calendar for the surviving indigenous population who often use the day to showcase their cultural traditions in public. Many mixed-race Mexicans take the day to reflect on the joining of European and indigenous cultures. They take flowers to the ubiquitous monuments of Christopher Columbus that scatter the country’s cities, especially on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, which becomes a floral tribute on this day.
Carnival is famous for being the most exuberant festival of the year, celebrated from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Barranquilla, Colombia to Veracruz on Mexico’s eastern coast – the country’s epicentre of carnival activity. It is said that the indigenous population accepted the arrival of the Catholic carnival tradition because it coincided with a variety of their own festivals of the “lost days” of the Mayan calendar, when the local population covered their faces to expel evil.
Celebrations in Veracruz involve much drinking and dancing, interspersed with lavish parades throughout the city. Famously and most impressively, however, is the quema del mal humor, the burning of a giant effigy, in the city’s main square to kick off the festivities, which take place in February.
Las Velas Of Juchitán
Oaxaca, a state in the quiet south-east region, hosts one of the most colourful festivals that Mexico has to offer. Women parade through the streets in a procession called La regata where they dress in vivid, highly colourful clothing to demonstrate their strong, fundamental presence in society. Vela in Spanish means candle, referring to the light brought into homes and families, although this now refers to a party in Oaxaca, of which there over 20 throughout the year.
Another interesting aspect of the state is the group of people known as muxes, the local name for men who dress like women on a daily basis. This group is widely accepted in society, which is a rarity in a largely macho culture. It has been argued that this acceptance stems from the local admiration of everything female, which has been rooted in the area’s traditions and culture for over 2000 years.
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