How Mexican Traditions Work

By: Dave Roos

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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  • Clark, Jonathan. The Latino Encyclopedia. "Mariachi." Marshall Cavendish Corporation. 1995
  • Hacienda Tres Rios. "Traditional Mexican Music"
  • La Tuza. "What is Mexican son music?"
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  • Sosa, Elaine. Sally's Place. "Ethnic Cuisine: Mexico"
  • Super, John C. and Vargas, Luis Alberto. The Cambridge World History of Food. "Mexico and Highland Central America." Cambridge University Press. 2000.
  • Textile Museum. "Textile of the Month: Quechquemitl"
  • The University of Texas at Austin. "The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music"