Many Americans erroneously believe that Cinco de Mayo, or May 5, is Mexico's Independence Day. In fact, Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle in a largely unknown conflict between Mexican patriots and invading French forces in 1862. Napoleon III (the original Napoleon's nephew) had sent the army to occupy Mexico City, install a proxy ruler and expand the French empire. On May 5, undermanned and undertrained Mexican forces under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza repelled 6,000 of Napoleon's finest troops outside the city of Puebla. Although Mexico won the battle, it was only the beginning of a prolonged French occupation that would ultimately end in 1867. As for the widespread celebration of Cinco de Mayo in America, we can only blame the marketing department at Corona.
Mexican Customs and Traditions
There are a number of traditional holidays and celebrations that are unique to Mexico. Día de los muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday that is equal parts pre-Hispanic spirituality and post-Conquest Catholicism. Day of the Dead is celebrated on Nov. 2 and corresponds with the traditional Catholic observance of All Souls' Day. On the days leading up to Nov. 2, indigenous families build colorful home altars dedicated to a deceased loved one. The altars are adorned with the departed’s favorite foods and drink and lavishly decorated with yellow and purple flowers. The belief, which reaches back to pre-Hispanic times, is that the recently departed has been living in a spiritual purgatory from which he or she will return home on Nov. 1, the Night of the Dead.
Far from a gloomy or scary holiday, this distinctly Mexican holiday is a celebration of the deceased and a playful wink at the specter of death. If you visit strongly indigenous towns like Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacán or Oaxaca City, you’ll see stalls selling pink, sugarcoated skulls and statues of merrily dancing skeletons. Indigenous families spend the night of Nov. 1 in the town graveyard, where they hold vigil around a brightly decorated grave and share food, drink and laughter with the living and the dead.
Christmas is also celebrated quite differently in Mexico. First of all, there’s not much talk of Santa Claus. Traditionally, Mexican children don’t even get presents on Christmas Day. Instead, they have to wait until Día de los Reyes, or Three Kings' Day, which is celebrated on Jan. 6. Three Kings' Day commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, during which they presented him with three gifts. Another twist on the Christmas celebration is las posadas, a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem. A man and a woman (or sometimes little children) from the neighborhood are chosen to play Mary and Joseph. They’re dressed in full costume and sent out on a donkey to knock on doors asking if there’s room at the inn. After they’re turned away three times, the whole community meets for warm bowls of pozole and mugs of Mexican hot chocolate. The reenactment is often done several times leading up to Christmas.
Another important Mexican holiday, Mexico’s Independence Day, celebrated on Sept. 16. The most memorable part of the celebration actually happens on the night of Sept. 15, when families all across Mexico gather in their town squares to hear the famous grito, or "shout," of independence. On Sept. 16, 1810, a revolutionary priest named Miguel Hidalgo addressed a crowd gathered in the small town of Dolores, Guanajuato, pronouncing the beginning of the war of independence from Spain. Every year, on the night of the 15th, the president of Mexico, as well as mayors and governors across the country, reenact Hidalgo’s speech, with the crowd cheering "¡Viva México!" ("Long live Mexico!") three times in response.
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