Mixing indigenous and Spanish influences, there are a few significant national festivals whose origins help visitors on holiday in Mexico discover this vibrant country's history and culture.
Día de Muertos
Arguably Mexico's most famous festival, The Day of the Dead is not about death, but life. “Hay más tiempo que vida,” goes a Mexican saying. “There is more time than life.” It is a time to visit family graves and pray for those loved ones who have passed away.
November 1 is the "Day of the Innocents”, dedicated to children, and tends toward solemnity for that reason.
November 2 is the actual "Day of the Dead" and is more a celebration of life. Graves are decorated with flowers and an altar, with food and drink laid out to encourage the souls of the departed to join in the fun. Living family members also gather for a reunion and make the event a proper party.
This ritual was observed by indigenous people in summer from around 2000 BCE but the Catholic church changed the dates to November, All Saints and All Souls, in order to make it less pagan.
This is the time more familiar to us as Hallowe’en and leads many people to confuse the two events.
The filmmakers of Spectre had James Bond walk through a supposed Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, created for the film. However, the city tried a similar event in 2016 and it was such a success it looks like it might be a permanent fixture.
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In Pátzcuaro, crowds of visitors join locals in a major celebration that now starts with the Festival Cultural de la Muerte in the last week of October.
Surrounding towns hold similar events but Pátzcuaro’s plaza is the main focus, with a market selling crafts and food associated with the Day of the Dead.
Expect to see lots of skulls, worn as a mask or made into chocolate or sugar concoctions left in tribute to the dead or eaten by the living.
Local cemeteries are cleaned up and arches of flowers decorate local churches. On the Day of the Innocents, children run around town hunting for food offerings, later brought to the community centre for a feast.
On the night of November 2 the event moves to the cemeteries.
Women lay out flowers and food by the graveside and say prayers for the deceased. When day breaks it is time to go to mass in the local church and make an offering to the priest.
Best places to visit to enjoy this festival: Mexico City, Pátzcuaro.
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Dia de la Independencia
Independence Day is a festival that marks the start of Mexico’s decade-long war of independence against colonial Spain.
At dawn on September 16, 1810, the priest of the small town of Dolores, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, started an insurrection that inspired the entire country.
His cry of “Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!” is known as El Grito (The Shout).
At the time, Spain was involved in wars against England and Napoleon’s France (you will recall Admiral Nelson died at Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, facing combined French and Spanish fleets), and excess taxation to pay for the Spanish military was one reason for the uprising.
Hidalgo was executed a few months later, regretting the bloodshed he had unleashed.
The celebration is now a display of nationalism lasting for weeks either side of the actual day.
Towns put on art shows, concerts, parades and exhibits of Mexican food or history. By September 15, the national colours of green, white and red are seen everywhere. It’s a time to play Mexican music, wear traditional costume and maybe even sport a drooping, Revolutionary-style moustache.
Events build to a crescendo in local plazas when a local functionary emerges at midnight for El Grito. The shout of “Viva Mexico!” brings fireworks and a start to the real party on September 16 - “Diez y Seis”.
In Mexico City, the President gives El Grito from a balcony of the Presidential Palace to a partying crowd. Bells ring out from the cathedral as he rings the actual bell rung in Dolores in 1810. The size and energy of the throng depends on the popularity of the president, but it’s always a memorable event. Avenida Paseo de la Reforma is a good place to enjoy the fireworks and party.
Best places to visit to enjoy this festival: Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajato, Mexico City.
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Cinco de Mayo
While “Independence Day” does not mark Mexico’s actual Independence Day on September 27, 1821, neither does Cinco de Mayo. This was instead the date of a significant victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
The French eventually took Mexico City anyway but resistance continued until Maximilian I (an Austrian archduke put in place by Emperor Napoleon III) was executed in 1867.
This so-called Mexican fiesta is a big deal in the USA – started by exiles in California and heavily promoted by Mexican beer brands – but much less so in Mexico itself. However, the flow of people and culture across the border means local bars are starting to join in the action.
Puebla does mark the week before with music and cultural events. On May 5, units of the Mexican Army lead a parade of local people dressed in period costume.
Best places to enjoy this festival: Puebla, Los Angeles (USA), most bars.
Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe
The Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a religious festival dedicated to the country’s patron saint. It is celebrated on December 12, when the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, appeared to a man called Juan Diego in Mexico City in 1531.
She talked to him in the Nahuatl language and the apparition was responsible for many native people converting to Catholicism. It has become a major driver in the Virgin Mary cult throughout Latin America.
The Basilica of Guadalupe, built on the spot of the apparition in Mexico City, is the centre for pilgrimage but fiestas are held across the country.
Juan Diego first saw the Virgin on December 9 but the local bishop demanded proof. Returning to the same spot a few days later, Diego found roses blooming despite the late season.
He wrapped them in his tilmàtli (a cloak-like robe) to show the bishop and when they dropped out a dark-skinned image of the Virgin was revealed.
The cloak is now a holy relic that makes the church the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world. This is despite an investigation as early as 1556 concluding the image was probably the work of Aztec painter Marcos Cipac de Aquino.
The devotion of those who believe in the miraculous appearance is very real, however, and it is impossible not to be moved by the religious faith of those celebrating it around the country.
Best place to enjoy this festival: Villa de Guadalupe.
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The Holy Week of Easter in Catholic Mexico is a time for both devotion and celebration.
Before that, there is the 40-day fasting period of Lent, preceded by the joys of Carnival. There are hundreds of carnivals throughout Mexico, although the ones in the port cities of Mazatlan and Veracruz are most famous and among the largest in the world after Rio and New Orleans.
Mazatlan Carnaval attracts around 300,00 people, mostly Mexicans, while Veracruz’s slightly grander affair has become more popular with tourists.
Carnival is now a five-day event, with lots of extras such as visits to towns by funfairs.
The fun peaks at the weekend, when Saturday night starts with the burning of a giant effigy, originally of Judas Escariot – who betrayed Christ – but now a topical politician, film star or other celebrity.
In 2016, Donald Trump was a popular target for his attacks on Mexican immigrants.
A massive fireworks display is also essential.
Then comes the carnival parade on Sunday, a series of floats, bands and dancers led by the King and Queen. Local variations include Mérida, capital of Yucatan, where the “Battle of the Flowers” is a highlight, and Tlaxcala, where Huehue dancers and carnival foods show an Aztec origin.
Holy Week has its own religious parades on Good Friday and Easter Sunday when re-enactments of the events leading up to Christ's crucifixion are a particular feature.
Best places to enjoy this festival: Veracruz, Mazatlan, Mérida.
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Christmas is another important religious festival in Mexico and the season starts with Las Posadas (Lodgings) on December 16.
A candle-lit procession of children led by an angel, Mary and Joseph – and sometimes even a donkey – go to a designated home but are at first turned away.
After some traditional songs, they are then invited inside to attack a star-shaped piñata filled with sweets and fruit. The ritual recalls the search by Mary and Joseph for a room for the infant Jesus.
There is a repeat every night until Christmas Eve, when Midnight Mass is traditional. It used to be that Dia de los Santos Reyes, the day the three kings arrived with gifts for the infant Jesus on January 6, was the time for present giving.
Nowadays, Christmas Day itself is becoming popular – good news for Mexican children, who can now expect a gift on both days.
Best places to enjoy this festival: Any small town.
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