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The Fesivals of Mexico
On virtually every day of the year, there is a festival going on somewhere in Mexico. Mexico has a rich tradition of religious and secular celebrations, and all are enjoyed with a vitality and vigor hard to match. The colors and the music in these celebrations can be spectacular, and of course, delicious comida (food) is always present. Festivals in Mexico range from the somber processions of the Semana Santa (Holy Week), to the downright silliness of the Día de Los Locos (Festival of the Crazies) in San Miguel de Allende, to the breathtaking dances of the Guelaguetza, celebrated in the state of Oaxaca.
There are also dozens of festivals throughout the country dedicated to a specific kind of food, and several festivals devoted to regional arts and crafts. Mexico also hosts one of the largest performing arts festivals in Latin America, the Cervantino Festival, dedicated to the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote the epic work Don Quixote.
While there are literally hundreds of festivals to see and enjoy in Mexico, some of the most unique, important and widely celebrated are the ubiquitous local town ferias (town fairs), the religious festivals of the Semana Santa (Holy Week), El Día de la Independencia (Independence Day), and the macabre El Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).
TRADITIONAL TOWN FERIAS
In rural areas, villages celebrate their ferias (town fairs) once a year, typically on the Saint’s day the local church was named after. Towns with more than one church celebrate several ferias each year. These fairs usually involve mechanical rides such as Ferris wheels, lots of food, dancing, music and spectacular fireworks.
In larger cities, neighborhoods centered around specific churches celebrate similar festivals. You’ll know when there is a feria nearby when you hear the explosions of loud cuetes, which are basically large bottle rockets that explode but don’t produce any colorful display. These local ferias usual culminate in a community dance with live music, lasting until the wee hours of the morning.
One of the most spectacular aspects of community ferias is the burning of castillos (castles) and toritos (little bulls). These are two different kinds of fireworks displays that are a joy to watch, from a distance that is! Castillos are giant structures made from wood, papier-mâché, and dozens of fireworks. They are often built with images of saints and wheels that spin around as the Castillo works through its various fireworks. As the castillo burns, it showers the audience in sparks. Many participants strap old cardboard boxes on their backs to go dancing among the sparks. The castillos are lit in stages, and usually finish with the top of the structure blasting off into the night sky. These castillos can often be several stories tall and in the largest ferias there can be three or four castillos lit in one night.
Toritos are an altogether different experience. Toritos are papier-mâché structures made in the shape of a bull, with horns and all, and laden with fireworks. In the tradition of the bullfight, someone places the torito on his back and proceeds to chase spectators around while the fireworks shoot from the torito and explore around the crowd. Running with these toritos, like real bulls, has its risks, and occasionally people who risk running with these “bulls” leave the feria with burnt clothes or worse!
Semana Santa is mainly a series of religious processions that commemorate Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The celebration of Semana Santa begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday. In many ways, the Semana Santa is a more important holiday than Christmas in much of Latin America. Many people have the whole week off from work, and there are celebrations throughout the country. Traveling to Mexico during this time can be exciting, but make sure you book your hotel well in advance, as many Mexicans will also be traveling.
Most of the processions during the Semana Santa involve a display of religious icons and statues that are usually stored in glass cases in churches. Some of the statues are very old and very elaborate. The processions are also accompanied by large flower arrangements and palm crosses. You will also see many home altars put on display during this time. Passion Plays detailing the death of Christ are also witnessed at this time. Some of the most famous passion plays are performed in Ajijic, in the state of Jalisco and in Ixtapalapa, near Mexico City.
During Semana Santa, the colonial city of Taxco hosts one of the most unique celebrations in all of Mexico. The celebration is fascinating, but not for the faint of heart. People come from all over the world to see the unusual reenactment of the crucifixion of Christ, which is most notable for the procession involving Los Penitentes (the penitents). Los Penitentes are men dressed in black hoods and robes who carry massive collections of spiny branches on their backs. For the pain inflicted by the branches and their weight alone, the devotion of these men is awe-inspiring. The branches often cause the men to bleed, as the spines dig into their skin. This tradition was brought to Mexico from Spain, and dates from the Middle Ages. The culture of the Penitentes can also be seen in the Hispanic communities of New Mexico, in the United States.
In contrast, a very beautiful and quiet procession performed during this time is known as the Procesión de Silencio (Procession of Silence), in which hooded figures carry crosses through the streets. The procession takes place at night, with the cross-bearers lit by shimmering candlelight. The neighborhoods of San Angel and Coyoacan in Mexico City are unique and less crowded places to witness this procession. The cities of San Luis Potosi (capital of the state of the same name) and San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and also wonderful places to watch the Procesión de Silencio.
Other unique destinations to witness the Semana Santa are the indigenous communities of Patzcuaro and Tzintzuntzan, both located in the state of Michoacán. San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas and Aguascalientes (capital of the state with the same name) are also famous for beautiful ceremonies and processions.
One wonderful and occasionally annoying tradition during the Semana Santa is to crack eggs over the heads of friends, family, and sometimes, complete strangers. Usually, the eggs are hollowed out and filled with confetti or flour. Occasionally, however, the eggs are left intact and create quite a mess as they are smashed over the heads of unsuspecting victims. Learn how to make your own cascaron (confetti-filled egg shell) in the Activities section.
15 DE SEPTEMBRE, EL DÍA DE INDEPENDENCIA
El Día de Independencia (Independence Day) is another one of the major festivals celebrated in Mexico. “Independence Day” is actually a misnomer as the celebration is stretched out between two days, the 15th and 16th of September. These holidays are also known as the Fiestas Patrias. (See the History section for more details on Mexican Independence)... Read More
EL DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS
One of the most famous celebrations in Mexico, El Día de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is a unique mixture of Catholic and pre-Hispanic traditions, in which Mexicans pay homage to their deceased relatives with some of the most beautiful and unusual traditions found in the country. This holiday is actually celebrated between November 1st and 2nd and is collectively referred to as Los Días de Los Muertos. The largest celebrations fall on the 2nd of November.... Read More
There are dozens of books written about the history and traditions of the Day of the Dead. Please see the Resources
section for recommended reading on this fascinating holiday.
OTHER IMPORTANT FESTIVALS IN MEXICO
New Year’s Day (Año Nuevo)
A popular festival celebrated with what Mexicans do best: food, fireworks, and dancing. As is the tradition in other Latin America countries, 12 grapes are eaten at midnight. Each grape represents a month of the coming year, and revelers make a wish with each grape eaten.
Three Kings Day (Día de los Santos Reyes (Reyes Magos))
Unlike other countries in North America, Mexican children receive most of their gifts on this day, as Three Kings Day is when the three Wise Men were said to have brought gifts for the baby Jesus. A delightful tradition on this day is to bake a Rosca de Reyes, which is a circular bread filled with candied fruits and a small toy figure of the baby Jesus. The person who finds the baby in his piece of bread is obligated to host a party on February 2nd, El Día de la Candelaria.
Candlemass (Día de la Candelaria)
This religious festival is celebrated throughout Mexico. People take their religious icons, mostly figures of the Baby Jesus, to churches for a blessing. The Niño Jesus also receives a face lift and a new set of clothes. Parades and dances are performed throughout the country.
Cinco de Mayo, (5th of May)
This national holiday commemorates the defeat of the French, which occurred in the state of Puebla in 1862. The largest celebrates take place in the city of Puebla. See the History section for more information of the Battle of Puebla.
Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua
While this saint is honored throughout Mexico, the most famous fiesta in honor of San Antonio de Padua is celebrated in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, with the famous Día de los Locos (Day of the Crazies). Locals don special costumes including caricatures of political figures, men dressed as women, and an assortment of monsters and animals and parade through the streets, tossing candy to spectators.
Last 2 weeks of July
Guelaguetza (Lunes del Cerro), Oaxaca, Oaxaca
One of Mexico’s most famous festivals, highlighting folkloric dancing from throughout the state of Oaxaca. All the dances take place in an outdoor amphitheater.
Posadas de Navidad (Christmas Street Processions)
The nights before Christmas are filled with these wonderful processions, representing the Holy Family’s search for posada (refugee) before the birth of Jesus. There are special songs to accompany the procession, which culminates when the Holy Family, after going door to door to several houses, finally finds a place to stay. Taxco, Guerrero, and Xochimilco, D.F. are especially known for large and elaborate posadas.
This day is usually celebrated with special masses, including at midnight mass on the night of the 24th. Families get together to eat, drink, and chat, but children don’t open their main presents until the 6th of January (Kings Day).
Browse through our Mexican Information Pages for:
Resources to learn more about Mexico:
Recipes from an Aztec Garden
A Collection of Classic and Traditional Recipes from Mexico!
Festival of Mexico Folk Arts
Mexican folk art information, Mexican toys and games including loteria cards, Mexican culture and folk art buying tips, Folk art from
Chiapas, Oaxaca, Huichol folk art, and more!
Mexican Culture for Kids
A resource for teachers, students, and anyone interested in Mexico.
Flor y Canto
This website is an exploration of Mexican culture written by a Mexican woman and her American husband.
Ecotourism and responsible travel in Mexico and around the world.
Madam Mayo's Blog
M. Mayo is a writer, poet, and translator. Her blog has lots of great information about Mexican culture and travel.