Being in another country over the holiday season is an interesting experience. It’s a time of year when traditions are on display, allowing an insight into their culture that might not otherwise be so apparent. During the last few months I have been lucky enough to be in Mexico for Dia de Muertos, Dia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Navidad, Año Nuevo and Reyes Magos. During each of these celebrations I learnt something new about Mexican culture while experiencing them in my own particular way. Here is a bit of a summary of each.
Dia de Muertos
Probably the most famous of Mexican traditions, Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) sounds a bit morbid but it is actually a lovely celebration of family members who have passed away without the sadness or mourning that you might think would accompany such an event. The Mexican perspective on death is quite different to what I am used to – in fact many topics that are almost taboo in our society are fair game over here. The result is that many comments, jokes and perspectives might seem totally inappropriate in Australia, but in Mexico are fair game. Death is not something to be shied away from – it happens to all of us after all. Dia de Muertos therefore is an important and happy celebration, complete with fancy dress, typical sweets, flowers and drinking.
I was lucky enough to travel to the state of Michoacan for Dia de Muertos, specifically to the towns of Patzcuaro, Janitzio and Morelia. The former two are particularly well known throughout Mexico as having very elaborate celebrations. Family members decorate the graves of their family members with flowers and offerings and spend the whole night in the cemetery, drinking and telling stories. I walked through the Patzcuaro cemetery at three o’clock in the morning, amongst the orange flowers and candlelight. It was quite beautiful, and not eery at all, but then again I quite like cemeteries in general.
As well as the day itself, being in Mexico in the week leading up to celebrations was a fantastic experience. Markets selling the traditional food stuffs and offerings were fun to explore, and the main plazas and public spaces were often decorated with huge Catrinas – the skull faced female figures that have become so popular world-wide.
Dia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
In contrast to Dia de Muertos, which is will known throughout the world, I didn’t know anything about the Dia de Guadalupe. Celebrated on 12th December, it is the anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin to a young indigenous boy named Juan Diego in 1531 on a hill outside Mexico City. The Virgin of Guadalupe is considered to be the Patroness of Mexico and the shrine to the Virgin in the north of Mexico City is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage destination in the world.
I was visiting the town of Guanajuato on this day, which is a national holiday in Mexico. I witnessed religious parades, loads of flowers, beautiful papel picado bearing the image of the Virgin, never ending fire crackers and all the children dressed in the local traditional dress. Given that celebrations often vary greatly from region to region I can’t say whether this is a typical reflection of celebrations throughout Mexico, but it certainly added an extra level of enjoyment to my visit to Guanajuato, one of the most beautiful towns I have even seen.
Ah Christmas, one of my favourite times of year! It’s a bit sad to be away from home over Christmas, but nice to experience the festivities Mexican style. As with elsewhere, Christmas is very much a family affair, and happily food is just as important over here as it is at home! Families and workplaces get the festive season underway with a posada, which is basically a special meal in the weeks leading up to Christmas to get into the spirit. I was lucky enough to attend two posadas, one more traditional than the other.
The first was a “family” meal for the share house I was staying at in Guadalajara. Seeing as it was an eclectic international household everyone prepared a dish from their country and we had an enormous pot luck dinner. Germany, Chile and various regions of Mexico were represented. I made a trifle, which I know is not Australian (honestly, what is?) but it usually features in my family’s Christmas so I thought it was appropriate. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) we ate so much that there was no room for dessert until about 5pm the next day! When we finally devoured it the trifle was a hit – I am unsure that anyone could not like layers of cake and custard and jelly and cream…
The second posada was a more traditional affair, with the family of a friend in Mexico City. As well as eating delicious cochinita pibil and drinking ponche, the whole family (and the ring-ins) re-enacted the journey of Mary and Joseph in their search for lodging (which is the translation of posada). While I am not religious in the slightest I do enjoy seeing how religious traditions are incorporated into everyday life, so I joined in with the rest. Half the family remained inside while the rest walked around the block, holding candles and singing. Once back at the front door those outside sing a song asking for lodging. The song is about 12 verses long, with the group inside the house alternating verses with those outside until finally they agree to let the travelers in. Definitely a departure from the Christmas parties that I am familiar with!
Once back inside the house a traditional star-shaped Christmas piñata was strung up in the courtyard and everyone had a good bash until it fell apart and everyone scrambled for the fruit and nuts inside. They make it more difficult by hoisting the piñata up and down while you’re trying to smash it with a wooden stick – it gets particularly dangerous when the two-year old has a turn, but where’s the fun without a little bit of danger?
Similar to the European tradition Mexicans celebrate Christmas Eve with a family meal, while the 25th is reserved for relaxing and eating leftovers. I was in Oaxaca for the 24th and 25th December. The night of the 24th was good fun – the main plaza was packed with people playing with the biggest sparklers I have ever seen; there was a never ending stream of floats with young children in Nativity scenes throwing sweets to the crowds; fireworks were set off in uncomfortable proximity to onlookers and of course all this with the backdrop of the beautifully lit Cathedral and fairy lights in the plaza. My Christmas eve meal of pizza and pasta was not the most traditional, but tasty none the less!
On the 25th, my day of sightseeing in the city, I must have visited more churches than even the most devout Christian normally does on Christmas! Of these, the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman was one of the most ornate and impressive I have ever seen. It also housed a fantastic museum, and apparently the only museum in the city open that day. The 25th was also a great food day – Oaxaca is famous for some of the best food in Mexico, including mole, cheese, chocolate and mezcal. I sampled an amazing mole tamale and a bowl full of hot chocolate with sweet bread to go with it (and that was just breakfast!). Later on I tried the local specialty, the tlayuda, which is a giant tortilla topped with all sorts of things. I can’t say it’s my favourite incarnation of tortillas and meat, but I gave it a go!
From my understanding, a typical New Years is also a family affair, with yet another special family meal held on the 31st December. However there must be plenty of young Mexicans who don’t adhere to this tradition, because I brought in 2014 with several hundred people on the beach in Mazunte. This was my second experience of the beach in Mexico, and I must say it was much more my style than my first. This part of the coast of Oaxaca, just east of Puerto Escondido, had some beautiful beaches that reminded me of home, particularly San Agustinillo where I spent a night camping on the beach. Mazunte was more of a party town, and a good spot to farewell 2013 with dinner on the sand and a big beach party. Apparently a tradition in this part of the world is setting fire to a figurine of a monkey stuffed with fireworks. The crackers continued to explode at irregular intervals for some time afterwards!
Like Spain, Mexico celebrates Dia de Reyes Magos on 6th January, which is when children typically receive their gifts from the “magic kings”, or three wise men. Children write a letter to the Reyes Magos asking for gifts. Traditional food on this day or the night before is the Rosca de Reyes – which is a not particularly appetising looking cake (in my opinion) in a ring shape. The cake contains a figurine representing baby Jesus, and the Mexican tradition is that whoever finds the figurine has to provide tamales for everyone on 2nd February. I didn’t end up trying any Rosca, either here or during my time in Spain, but to be honest I’m not real fussed!
Reyes Magos brings to an end both the Christmas season and another Mexican tradition – El Maraton Guadalupe-Reyes. Not the most typical of traditions, this is simply a drinking marathon. Those taking part in the marathon pledge to drink every day from Guadalupe (12th December) to Reyes (6th January). That’s 26 days straight of drinking! I can’t say I participated in El Maraton – I’m already cultivating a bit of a pot belly from too many tortillas, I didn’t want to give it a helping hand with 26 days of beer as well!
Phew! That’s a lot of festivities. What do you think about my Mexican holiday season??