Stumbling, perhaps accidentally, onto some Mexican village fiesta may prove to be the highlight of your travels. Everywhere, from the remotest indigenous village to the most sophisticated city suburb, devotes at least one day annually to partying. Usually it’s in honour of the local saint’s day, but many fiestas have pre-Christian origins and any excuse – from harvest celebrations to the coming of the rains – will do.
Even the tiniest village in Mexico has an annual fiesta, usually on the day of the town’s patron saint. Fiestas usually last at least a couple of days and often involve some blend of rodeos, bullfights, dancing, fried snacks, carnival rides, fireworks and processions around the church. They offer a great opportunity to see indigenous dances – such as the Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Little Old Men) in Michoacán, or the feather-bedecked quetzales in Cuetzalan, Puebla.
Below we have listed the most important nationwide fiestas.
In addition to these, there are plenty of lesser local festivals. Traditional dances and music form an essential part of almost every fiesta, and most include a procession behind some revered holy image or a more celebratory secular parade with fireworks. No two fiestas will be quite the same. The Catholic saints’ calendar provides countless opportunities for celebrating, with many of the biggest events observed with a combination of religious fervour and all-out partying.
A festival calendar
New Year Jan 1. Still largely an occasion to spend with family, the actual hour being celebrated with the eating of grapes.
Twelfth Night (Epiphany, Reyes) Jan 6. Presents are traditionally given on this, the last day of Christmas, when the biblical Magi are believed to have arrived bearing gifts. Nowadays, things are shifting into line with American custom, and more and more people are exchanging gifts on December 25 instead.
Ortiz Tirado Music Festival late Jan. A festival of classical music held annually in Alamos, Sonora, in honour of opera singer Alfonso Ortiz Tirado (who died in 1960), draws leading classical musicians and singers from across the world.
Carnaval moveable. The last week of taking one’s pleasures before the forty-day abstinence of Lent, celebrated throughout the Roman Catholic world, but is at its most exuberant in Latin America. Like Easter, its date is not fixed, but generally falls in February or early March, celebrated with costumes, parades, eating and dancing, most spectacularly in Veracruz and Mazatlán, working its way up to a climax on the last day, Mardi Gras (Shrove Tues). Carnaval is celebrated most vigorously in the coastal cities, including Veracruz and San Miguel on Cozumel. The city of Mazatlán claims to have the world’s third-largest Mardi Gras party, after Rio and New Orleans.
Festival Internacional de Guitarra
late March or early April. A celebration of guitar music held annually in Morelia, and attended by musicians from around the world.
Semana Santa (Holy Week)
moveable. The country’s biggest holiday, beginning on Palm Sunday and finishing a week later on Easter Sunday. Still a deeply religious festival in Mexico, it celebrates the resurrection of Christ, and is also an occasion to venerate the Virgin Mary, with processions bearing her image now a hallmark of the celebrations. Pilgrims converge on churches, and people re-enact the Passion of Christ. The most famous staging is in Iztapalapa, outside Mexico City, where the event involves a cast of thousands, buckets of fake blood and more than a million spectators. Transport is disrupted everywhere as virtually the whole country is on the move, and you will definitely need to plan ahead if travelling. Many places close for the whole of Holy Week, and certainly from Thursday to Sunday.
Cinco de Mayo
May 5. Commemorating the 1862 Battle of Puebla, it’s a public holiday in Mexico, but is actually celebrated more enthusiastically in the US, where many Gringos (who see the date as a chance to have a theme party involving sombreros, nachos and tequila), have come to believe that it’s Mexico’s equivalent of the US’s July 4. In Mexico it’s not such a big deal, except in Puebla, where it’s a public holiday, celebrated with an exuberant fiesta.
Día de San Juan (St John’s Day) June 24. Celebrating the birth of the biblical St John the Baptist, but also handily close to the summer solstice, this is celebrated with bonfires, fairs, charreadas (rodeos) and sometimes water throwing in towns and villages nationwide.
Día de Santiago (St James’s Day) July 25. An opportunity for a fiesta in many parts of the country, most notably in Chiapas, where big celebrations are held at San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Día de la Asunción (Assumption Day) Aug 15. This is the day when the Virgin Mary is believed to have ascended to heaven, and although it isn’t a public holiday, it’s celebrated around the country, most notably at Oxkutzcab and Izamal in Yucatán, and Cholula in Puebla State.
Independence Day Sept 16. While Easter and Carnaval are popular, this one is more official, marking the historic day in 1810 when Manuel Hidalgo y Costilla issued the Grito (Cry of Independence) from his parish church in Dolores, now Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, which is still the centre of commemoration. You’ll also find the day marked in the capital with mass recitation of the Grito in the Zócalo, followed by fireworks, music and dancing. Nevertheless, in some ways it’s more solemn than the religious festivals.
Festival Internacional de Santa Lucía end of Sept and beginning of Oct. Formerly the Festival Cultural of Monterrey’s Barrio Antiguo, showcasing local rock bands and other eclectic musicians, this festival has been reborn, having outgrown the confines of the Barrio Antiguo to become a citywide event. It’s now Mexico’s third-biggest music festival after Guanajuato’s Festival Cervantino and Alamos’ Festival Ortiz Tirado.
Festival Internacional Cervantino mid-Oct. Guanajuato’s big, two-and-a-half-week music fest, dating back to the 1970s. Every October, it brings together Mexican marimba legends, French jazz artists, choral music from England and international dance troupes.
The Day of the Dead (All Saints’/Souls’ Day, and its eve) Nov 1–2. Offerings are made to ancestors’ souls, frequently with picnics and all-night vigils at their graves, and people build shrines in their homes to honour their departed relatives. Sweetmeats and papier-mâché statues of dressed-up skeletons give the whole proceedings a rather gothic air. Head for cemeteries to see the really spectacular stuff, or to Pátzcuaro. For more details, see Día de los Muertos.
Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe Dec 12. Celebrations everywhere, and a huge day for pilgrims at the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico City, home of Mexico’s most important Virgin (a manifestation, that is, of the biblical Virgin Mary), who appeared on this day in 1551.
Christmas Dec 25. A major holiday, with loads of people on the move and transport booked solid for weeks ahead. Gringo influence is heavy nowadays, with Santa Claus and Christmas trees, but the Mexican festival remains distinct in many ways, with a much stronger religious element (virtually every home has a Nativity crib). One of the more bizarre Christmas events takes place in Oaxaca, where there is a public display of Nativity cribs and other sculptures made of radishes.
Día de los Muertos
Día de los Muertos
If visitors know just one Mexican holiday, it’s probably the Day of the Dead, when families honour and remember those who have died. Actually taking place over two days, November 1 and 2, it’s an indigenous tradition unique to Mexico. With a few exceptions (such as the beautiful torch-lighting ceremony and festive dances around Lago de Pátzcuaro), it’s usually a private rite. In every home and many businesses people set up ofrendas (altars) for the deceased: the centrepiece is always a photograph, lit by candles. In addition to the photo, the person’s favourite foods are also placed on the altar, as a way of luring the soul back to this world. For the same reason, strong-scented, bright orange marigolds are often laid in a path leading to the altar, and resinous copal incense is lit.
On the streets, market stalls brim with eggy, orange-scented pan de muertos and colourfully iced sugar skulls. Families usually gather to eat dinner on the night of November 1, then visit gravesites, which are also cleaned and decorated. Far from being a sad time, the Day of the Dead is an occasion for telling funny stories, bonding with family and generally celebrating life.