Category Archives: Holidays and customs

Everything you need to know about Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo has become a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. For most Americans, it translates into drinking margaritas or Mexican beer, eating Mexican food, and listening to traditional Mexican music.

Many Americans often mistake Cinco de Mayo to be a celebration of Mexican independence. Cinco de Mayo is actually a celebration of a failed invasion in 1861 by the French after the newly created Mexican state defaulted on its debt payments to European governments. At the time, Mexico was suffering financial ruin as a result of years of internal strife and had defaulted on debts with France, England, and Spain.

mexican flag

While Spain and England entered into successful negotiations with the Mexican government, Napoleon III, the French president, thought that it offered him a great opportunity to attempt to build an empire in Mexico. Well-armed French forces invaded Mexico at Veracruz, forcing the government and its forces to flee into Northern Mexico.

Capitalizing on their success, the French then turned their attention on the city of Puebla de Los Ángeles.  However, the Mexican president, Benito Juarez, pulled together a force of about 2,000 men to fight the French, many of whom were indigenous Mexicans or mestizos. On May 5, 1862, the French launched their attack, the battle lasting from daybreak into the early evening. In the end, the French were bested by the Mexican forces, losing 500 soldiers, while the Mexicans lost less than 100.

mexican singers

Unfortunately, the victory was more of a symbolic one because the French did not leave Mexico until 1867 when the U.S. sent troops in to help its neighbor to the south after the end of the Civil War.

Interestingly enough, Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday in Mexico and is not celebrated nationwide. While the people in Puebla celebrate, the day is not recognized as a federal holiday. Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16, the anniversary of the day that Mexican priest and revolutionary, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, issued his famous “Grito de Dolores,” a call to arms for his fellow Mexicans to overthrow the Spanish colonial government.

cinco di mayo food example

Here in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo was popularized by Chicano activists in the 1960’s as a celebration of Mexican cultural heritage, especially the role that indigenous people played in defeating the French at Pueblo de Los Ángeles.  Over the past 50 years or so, the holiday has really gained importance in this country, especially in areas with large Latino populations. 

The holiday is celebrated with parades, parties, Mexican folk dancing, mariachi music, and traditional food and drink. Some of the largest Cinco de Mayo celebrations are held in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.

Christmas celebrations in Mexico

Like most religious occasions, Christmas is celebrated in a much more devout and elaborate way in Mexico than here in North America. For many in the United States, Christmas has become somewhat secular, symbolized by Santa Claus and Christmas trees, and celebrated by exchanging gifts with friends and family. 

In Mexico, Christmas traditions are centered on the biblical stories of the events surrounding the birth of Christ and include some historical traditions dating back to the indigenous cultures as well. Due to the diversity of those cultures, celebrations vary from region to region. The celebrations stretch from December 16th through January 6th. Here are some of the special traditions:

La Noche Buena Christmas Eve

Las Posadas

December 16th until the 24th, children parade from door to door in their town, singing a song that asks if there’s room at the “Inn”, signifying Mary and Joseph’s search to find lodging for the birth of Jesus. They are turned away until the last house (different each night), where they’re welcomed and a party ensues. 

Nativity Scenes

Known as Nacimientos, nativity scenes crop up all over the towns, including some that are life-sized. Many families display one in their home as well, and the figurines are passed down through the generations. The baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve and the Three Kings on the Epiphany. 

Nacimientos, nativity scenes

Christmas Eve

Noche Buena, translated literally as Good night, is the most important family day. After the final posada, the whole family gathers for the main Christmas meal. There is great attention to detail from the place settings to the specific candles and flowers on the table, to the traditional foods that are served. Many finish the evening by attending a midnight mass with their loved ones. 

Christmas Gifts

Giving gifts is not the main focus of the season, though depending on their family’s particular traditions, some children will receive presents on Noche Buena, while others must wait until the Epiphany to receive theirs.

Rosca de Reyes, Three Kings Cake


El Dia de los Reyes, The Day of the Kings, happens on January 6th. This is when the Three Kings, or Magi, visited Jesus and presented him with gifts. If the children have already opened presents on Noche Buena, they may get candy on this day. A special Three Kings Cake, Rosca de Reyes, is baked on this day, with a tiny Jesus figure somewhere inside. The tradition is that whoever finds the figure in their piece of cake is required to host the celebration the following year.

Our Lady of Guadalupe: miraculous legend or convenient story?

Thursday, December 12th, Catholics all over Mexico, Central America and parts of the United States will be enjoying the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in honor of La Virgen Morena (The Brown Virgin). The story behind this particular celebration varies greatly, depending on the source of information. The official version states that in 1531, a poor Indian peasant, Juan Diego, was approached by a dark-skinned apparition, claiming to be the Virgin Mary. 

The encounter happened on Tepeyac Hill, which is on the eastern edge of what is now Mexico City. The apparition spoke to him in his native Aztec language and told him to urge the bishop to build a temple in her honor on the spot where they stood. Juan Diego took the tale directly to the bishop of Mexico, who wasn’t convinced of its truth. The Virgin Mary apparition appeared three more times to Diego and once to his ailing uncle and asked that she be called Guadalupe. 

La Virgen Morena

She performed several miracles to prove her true identity to them and the bishop, including imprinting her image on the inside of Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak) made of cactus fiber. Upon seeing this, the archbishop was satisfied, and the Basilica was built on the location she designated. According to historical records, upon hearing the story or viewing the tilma, eight million people in Mexico converted to Catholicism. To this day, the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most popular Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Inside, the tilma with the imprint or “Miraculous Portrait” is still on display. 

In modern times, there exists a culture of enormous devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe across Mexico. They put on an elaborate feast in her honor on 12/12, the last day in 1531 that she appeared to Juan Diego and imprinted her image on his cloak. 

There are quite a few historians and religious scholars, however, who debate the timing and basis of this story. Particularly in light of the fact that in the 1500’s, the Spanish conquerors were aggressively working to convert the indigenous people like the Aztecs from their native belief system to Catholicism. Oddly, the first written record of the historical event that has been found was dated in 1648, more than 100 years after it was purported to take place. 


Another point of interest has to do with Tepeyac Hill, the spot on which the Mary image insisted that a temple be built in her honor. Coincidentally, Tepeyac Hill was originally the site where a temple to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin stood. Tonantzin was the mother of all Aztec Gods, and by tearing down her temple and replacing with one for the mother of the Christian God, Jesus, some believe they were symbolically replacing her with Mary. 

The historical image of Juan Diego has also been questioned, as he originally appeared tall, light-skinned and bearded – more like a Spanish conqueror than a native Indian. Which begs the question, was it a Spanish man who originated the story rather than a native? And were the first devotees of Guadalupe not natives but rather Mexican Creoles (people born of Spanish descent in Mexico)?  

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Lastly, there is debate surrounding the name that the vision wanted to be called. In the legend, the name “Guadalupe” is claimed to be of Nahuatl origins, the native Aztec language. But some point to the fact that, while the word was new to the Nahuatl speakers, the name Guadalupe already existed in Spain.

Whether the legend is a true religious miracle, or a myth invented to affect the conversion to Catholicism of millions of native Mexicans, Our Lady of Guadalupe is highly revered across the country today. The Virgin Mary is considered the patron of all things good and brings much joy and comfort to those who believe in and pay homage to her.

How Mexicans honor the Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary is a powerful national religious symbol in Mexico, where she’s often honored with rituals and celebrations. As one one of Mexico’s most beloved patron saints, Mary is also referred to as Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is a big part of the Mexican identity and faith, and her image is associated with important issues, like motherhood, feminism and social justice. The events of her life are demarcated in many different ways throughout the year, including celebrating her arrival in heaven on August 15th, “Assumption Day”.

Celebrating the day Mary ascended to heaven

Dia de la Asuncion de Maria,  is based on the belief that when Mary died, her body did not undergo the normal process of physical decay, but instead was “assumed” directly into heaven and reunited with her soul. To this day, on August 15th, churches all over Mexico give masses and hold feasts dedicated to this event. Many towns and villages put on processions or parades, often lead by someone holding a statue of her image. Others carry banners and roses, the flower that has special meaning in the legend of how Mary became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Juan Diego and Mary

Juan Diego was a peasant who lived in Mexico in the 16th century. The legend goes that he was visited in December several times by an apparition of Mary. Diego went to the archbishop of Mexico City to speak of what he’d seen and was met with disbelief. But when Juan returned to report a second visit from Mary, the archbishop requested proof. He told Juan to go back to the place where he’d seen her and request that Mary provide a symbol, an actual miraculous sign that would show that Diego was telling the truth. 

Upon relaying the message, Mary instructed Juan to go the top of a hill and gather flowers. Not expecting to find any, as it was the middle of winter, he found non-native Castilian roses in full bloom. Mary filled his cloak with the flowers, and Juan traveled back to show the archbishop the unusual site. When he opened the cloak and the roses fell to the ground, the material underneath was adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary. The archbishop displayed the cloth in church for public display, and on her last visit to Juan Diego, Mary told him she wished to be known under the name of Guadalupe. 

Today, the Basilica of Guadalupe stands on the site where Our Lady is believed to have appeared in front of Juan Diego. Everywhere you go in Mexico, you’re likely to spot a statue, painting or image of the Virgin Mary. She is revered both as a religious symbol and even more, as a universal symbol of all that is good in the world.

What’s the story behind Mother’s Day?

Although the details vary, over 40 countries around the world designate a specific day every year to honor moms. People show their appreciation by giving cards, flowers and gifts, and many families go out for a meal. The U.S. National Restaurant Association reports that Mother’s Day is their busiest holiday of the year. While no one denies that mothers are known for providing unconditional love and support to their children, how did we end up with a holiday in their honor?

The first organized Mother’s Day celebration in the United States can be traced back to the year 1908 and a woman named Anna Jarvis. That first year, her goal was to memorialize her own late mother, and celebrate all that her mother had done for her personally as well as society as a whole through her volunteer work. Soon after Jarvis began a campaign to expand the concept into an annual yearly tradition of giving thanks to all mothers. She envisioned it to be a day whereby people expressed their appreciation to their moms for everything she’d done.

Anna’s efforts were so successful that within a few years President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May was to be officially recognized as Mother’s Day. This spelling was of particular importance to Anna Jarvis, as the singular possessive Mother’s indicates that each family should honor its own mother vs. the plural Mothers, which implies all mothers should be commemorated together. Also important to Jarvis, the idea that the day should be marked by children writing to or visiting their moms to offer personal words of gratitude.

Sadly for Anna Jarvis, greeting card companies, florists, bakeries and confectioneries did not share her commitment to preserve the intimate nature of the holiday. Instead they spotted an opportunity to use the new holiday to boost sales, and the commercialization of Mother’s Day was born. This distortion of her original intent distressed Anna greatly. She fought to take back control; organizing boycotts of the retail organizations, protesting at a candy-maker’s convention and was even arrested for crashing “The American War Mothers” convention after the group began using Mother’s Day for fundraising.

As you know, Anna’s tireless efforts to protest the commercial nature of Mother’s Day failed. There is a positive message in her story, though. Taking a page from her book, we can change the way we approach this holiday. Next year, sit down with a pen and paper and write your mom a note from the heart. Tell her all the ways you believe she’s helped you become the person you are now, and acknowledge the enormous sacrifices she made along the way. As a mom myself, I can tell you that I would cherish these words from my children far more than a generic greeting card and long after a bouquet of flowers had wilted.

An Easter Experience

Sunday, April 21st is the official date of Easter this year. If you have little kids, the Easter bunny might come by your home to put candy in their baskets, you may set up an egg hunt or two, and if you’re a practicing Christian, the whole event may be preceded by attending a religious service. For Catholics, the occasions tends to be more pious.

The great majority of Mexican citizens consider themselves Catholic, a religion first introduced by the Spaniards during their occupation of Mexico over 500 years ago. While they were in power, Spanish rulers worked hard to convert the entire population to the Catholic religion, often using force. Mexicans eventually fought for and won back their independence, but after 300 years, the religion was firmly entrenched.

Recent statistics released by the Vatican name Mexico as the country with the second largest number of Catholics in the world. Combined with the enthusiasm in which Mexicans approach their history and culture, Easter is a celebration that goes on for weeks rather than a single day.


Carnival, derived from the Spanish word for meat, carne, begins up to two weeks prior to lent. This is a time of living it up with parties and parades, big meals and abandon. Carnival is celebrated in many places; the largest occur in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. In Mexico, Mazatlan is the site for the biggest celebration in Mexico, followed by Veracruz City, Merida and Cozumel. The decadence is in preparation for the period of deprivation to come.


Lent represents the 40 days that Jesus Christ spent in the dessert, and to honor His sacrifice, Catholics will often cut back on the luxuries in their lives. Some people will choose their biggest weakness, such as alcohol or sweets, and commit to abstaining from consuming them during Lent.

Semana Santa

Translated, Semana Santa, means holy week, and during this time Mexicans celebrate the last days of Christ. This is a particularly fascinating part of the Easter tradition, in which many cities and townships stage a full reenactment of the capture, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The actors are chosen carefully and take their roles extremely seriously, offering moving and passionate performances.

Semana de Pascua

Easter week, the second week of the Easter, Pascua, celebration brings a different tone to the proceedings; a time for resurrection and new beginnings. Schools are closed and many families go to the beaches and other vacation destinations together.

Dia de Reyes: Celebrating a Visit From the Magi

Traditionally, Americans ring in the new year with a kiss, a toast and a glass of champagne, and pronounce the holiday season over. January represents an abrupt return to reality as we put those pesky new year’s resolutions to test, and try not panic when the Christmas bills come rolling in. The joy of Christmas is officially behind us. To the south, however, the most magical part of the season has yet to take place. In particular, all over the country on January 6th, you can find small children running to their shoes to see if the three kings have stopped in for a visit, leaving presents in their wake.

Dia de Reyes

Dia de Reyes (Day of Kings) marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas, and honors the three wise men who travelled from afar, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the infant baby Jesus. In Mexican households, it is traditional for children to leave out a pair of shoes on the eve of Dia de Reyes, with a hand-written wishlist. When they wake up in the morning, the legend goes that the Magi, or the three kings, have come during the night and left presents for the children.

Mexico Novels roscadereyes

Of course it wouldn’t be a Mexican holiday without parties, parades, public celebrations, and feasts, including traditional dishes to be enjoyed with family and friends. The most important culinary treat of the evening is the Rosca de Reyes, a cake baked in the shape of a king’s crown. It is the consistency of a sweet bread, and is adorned with dried fruit to represent jewels. Not visible from the outside of the Rosca de Reyes, a tiny Jesus doll is baked into the dessert.

Mexican holiday nativity scene

The doll tucked away in the cake symbolizes how the real Jesus had to be kept hidden from then-King Herod of Jerusalem. Herod had heard rumors that the new and rightful king of Jerusalem was soon to be born. Because he feared losing his power, he ordered his minions to kill all baby boys born around the time of Jesus Christ. They did not think, however, to look for a child born in a manger. Thus Jesus was safely hidden away similar to the effigy that is baked into the Rosca de Reyes. Whomever receives the piece of cake with the baby Jesus doll inside is then obligated to host the next holiday, Dia de la Candelaria on February 2nd.

There is a wonderful spirit in the air around the Christmas season.I believe much of this has to do with the extra effort we make to spend time with the people we love. Mexicans are really good at gathering together to celebrate both religious and cultural events all year-round, and it contributes to the strong family values for which they’re known.

The Day of the Dead

The name of this cultural tradition in Mexico may sound ominous, but it is actually an occasion filled with joy and celebration. The Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, occurs directly after Halloween, but there is no similarity between the two. On November 1, it is believed that souls of relatives and ancestors who have passed away have a 24 hour window in which to visit the living. Family members prepare in advance to honor and remember the life of their loved one, and spend the day celebrating the time they had together rather than mourning their deaths.


They begin by building ofrendas earlier in the month, which are beautiful altars that they put up in their homes. They are made up of a number of traditional items as well as things the person loved in their lifetime. The ofrenda includes pictures, candles, buckets of marigold flowers, artifacts of favorite hobbies, and special foods, including turkey tamales, tortillas, fruits and Day of the Dead breads, specially baked for the occasion. Little toy skeletons and candy skulls, calaveras de azúcar, provide the final touches.

cultural tradition in Mexico

The ofrenda should both include these traditional elements as well as remember the essence of the relative they’re honoring For example, if someone were building an ofrenda for me, there would be books by my favorite authors, cinnamon and floral scented candles, little statues of dogs and pictures of all the pets I’ve owned over the years, sheet music for the piano and lots of chocolate! Those familiar items would make my family members remember the things that made me happy during my lifetime as well as please my visiting soul.

Day of the dead parade

Other traditions that fill the day include visiting the gravesite and decorating it with festive candles and flowers. And each town will put on events like parades, where they may be special dances performed by members of the community. These customs tend to carry more solemnity in the smaller villages than in the cities, where the festivities are larger in scale and more celebratory in nature. Like most celebrations in Mexico, the particular traditions and customs will vary from one part of the country to another, influenced by thousands of years of history.

Viva La Independencia!

The more you learn about Mexico and its people, the more you realize that there is quite possibly no prouder culture in the world. The citizens of Mexico honor their ancestors and history in many ways, and celebrate the very diverse cultural traditions around the country. There is also a strong belief system that shared on a national level, including the importance of honoring home and family, patriotism, keeping local customs alive, and never letting an important date in history go by without acknowledgment. Mexicans celebrate both local historical and cultural traditions, which vary from one city or township to the next, as well as national ones..

One of the most important events that is celebrated all across the country is El Dia de la Independencia, September 16th. On that morning in the year of 1810, a priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla sounded the bell of his church and stood on its steps delivering a speech. He called for an uprising against the oppressive Spanish rulers that had invaded and governed Mexico for the past three hundred years. The war that followed was long and difficult, and Mexico was not able to officially declare its independence from Spain until September 28, 1821. To this day, however, Mexicans celebrate their independence on September 16th, the date that Father Hidalgo y Costilla made the call to arms.

Despite the holiday often being referred to as dieciséis de Septiembre (the 16th of September), Mexicans do not wait until that day to begin the festivities. Starting on the first of the month, buildings, streets and homes are decorated with green, red and white, the colors of the Mexican flag. In fact, the entire month is referred to as el mes de las patria (the month of the homeland), and is considered to be the most important of the patriotic holidays.

The festivities start to really heat up on the evening of September 15th, when people gather in town squares around the country and chant Viva Mexico! The 16th is a full day of celebrations, including parades, civic ceremonies and many fiestas. It’s a national holiday and schools, banks and businesses are all closed. Wherever you are in Mexico on this day, you will witness great patriotism and national pride among the citizens of a country that fought long and hard to be able to call themselves independent.

El Dia del Padre

Like in many other countries around the world, there’s a specific day set aside each year in Mexico to recognize and show gratitude for fathers. El dia del padre is observed on the third Sunday in June every year, and in keeping with most special occasions, is generally celebrated on a grander scale than in the U.S. However, the difference is that Mexican father’s day is not just about dads. From older brothers to uncles to grandfathers and step-dads, Mexicans take the opportunity to honor all father-like figures on this day.

El Dia del Padre

It all starts in the morning when los padres wake up to an elaborate breakfast. The enormous meal is designed to include all of dad’s favorite foods, even dessert. Father’s day breakfast is topped off with sweets, like Mexican chocolates or a traditional dessert called pan dulce. Translated literally to mean “sweet bread”, pan dulce also comes with decadent fruit or chocolate toppings. Next there will be greeting cards and traditional gifts like ties for the important male family members to open and the celebration will continue throughout the day.

If the family happens to live in the vicinity of Mexico City, fathers and their children can take part in an annual race called Carrera Dia del Padre 21K Bosque de Tlalpan. Commonly called a “fun run” in America, this event presents a great way for dads and kids to spend time together outside, doing something enjoyable and healthy.

A 21K race is 13.2 miles or a half marathon, which obviously would be quite a feet for a child to complete. There are, however, many different races to choose from throughout the day, including the very popular father-son race. After the various events have been completed, families can attend the big carnival for more food, games and fun. Whether they choose to participate in a fun run or not, of course this celebration wouldn’t be complete without a dinner feast.

For the people of Mexico, this is a day to celebrate not only fathers but many other important male figures within the family. And, as is their way, a chance to bring together family and spend the day eating, laughing and having a good time.