Memorial Day – an American Holiday

Today is Memorial Day in the US. A day set aside to honor those who have sacrificed their lives protecting the “land of the free” in battles around the globe. There will be speeches, cemetery visits, and memorial observances throughout the land.

Memorial Day is also the official start of the summer season —  tourist towns dust off the winter cobwebs, theme parks reopen their doors, children will soon be out of school, and a host of family activities are being planned. This long weekend affords families the opportunity to travel, get together for that first picnic of the season, and celebrate the summer to come.

Blue Bear hanging from a lantern

Let the camping and paddling season begin!

Holy Week – Mexican Traditions (a flashback)

Palm Sunday is past and Easter is coming up, that means bunnies and egg hunts here in the US but in Taxco it is Holy Week, something that a young man who lives there calls “a show you just have to see — at least once.” This one week of the year, people descend upon Taxco who take their Lenten penitence very seriously.

Hundreds of penitents come to town bearing the virgin statue from their parish, accompanied by an entourage of family, friends, townspeople, and all the confirmation girls of the village in their white dresses. The penitent’s intent is to show their devotion by “walking in the footsteps” of Christ (never mind that he never set foot in Mexico.)

With masks over their faces (to disguise their identity) and what I can only describe as a black sarong (I am sure they have a different name for it) tied around their waists, each chooses one of three ways to show their devotion — walk bent over with chains around their ankles holding candles or a small cross in their hands (usually women), carry a giant cross (usually adolescent boys), or carry a tree trunk sized roll of thorn stems over their shoulders forming a sort of human cross.

On the evening of Maunday (or Holy)Thursday, there is a procession of the shrines, when the main street winding through town is filled with these masked guys in black,bowing to their particular virgin, and self flagellating themselves with a fabric whip. Each penitent along with their entourages wind all the way through the main street of town from the la Garita statue to the church at the Zocolo (the park square in the center of town.) Don’t even think of trying to get anywhere downtown on that night, or the rest of the weekend for that matter, as thousands upon thousands fill the streets (the hotels, and restaurants – some of which rent and open a second seating area just for this week) to gawk and “see the show.”

Statues of penitents, Ex-convent, Taxco, Mexico

Statues of Holy Week penitents, Ex-convent, Taxco, Mexico

Saturday morning is the solemn procession. I am not sure how far these people walk (a mile or 2) all bent over or carrying their burden, but they do it barefoot on hot cobblestones, and if you are carrying the thorns bleeding. Each penitent is watched to be sure they carry their own burden, though they have assistants to guide them along (since those with the thorns cannot see where they are going, and, if the procession stops to lift the thorn rolls off the guys shoulders, while the bent can straighten up.

Around the Zocolo people throng to watch the procession, creating an avenue between rows of live bodies snapping photos, making videos, and cheering as each penitent reaches the church and receives communion. It is pure chaos but fascinating.

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As my friend, said, if you are in Taxco during Holy Week, you must “see the show.”

Fat Tuesday — Mexican Traditions

Today is  Fat Tuesday. They are partying in Rio  (Carnival), New Orleans (Mardi Gras) and other places around the world — celebrating a night of excessive eating, drinking, and revelry before Ash Wednesday and the Lenten period of fasting leading up to Easter.

I have never been to Rio or New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, but having been on Ludwig Strasse in Partenkirchen (Bavaria), Germany, where it’s called fausching and involves cow bells, yodeling, and an excess of sauerkraut and beer, the processions and celebrations in Taxco are a tame in comparison. But what they lack in revelry and drunken debauchery, they make up for in duration filling the streets today, tonight, and every Friday leading up to the Thursday before Easter, when the really big procession begins (more on that in another post though).

There are stilt walkers, costumed dancers representing indigenous traditions, and revelers of all ages — from school children who get off school early to dress in costume and parade the winding cobblestoned streets to adults forming informal street bands wandering through the city serenading the neighbors.

I am told that the processions — both solemn and fanciful, the parties at the churches, the fireworks, and the bands playing are all to remind people of the sacredness of the season, which is really ironic when a ragtag band comes over the hill playing “Roll Out the Barrel.”


Dia de Candelaria — Mexican Traditions

The brass bands are playing again and the airworks (those fireworks with only the boom) are going off again, and the combis are filled with people carrying around a doll wrapped up and cradled like it’s a real baby. What’s going on?

All this is in preparation for the last hurrah of the holiday season — Día de la Candelaria.

Officially known as the Feast of Our Lady of Candelaria or Candlemas, February 2nd marks 40 days after Christmas and thus Catholics celebrate in memory of the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2; 22-39 ) and purification of his mother, Mary, after childbirth (a requirement of the Law of the Old Testament – Lev 12; 1-8).

Like many Mexican celebrations though, this feast day represents a fusion of pre-Hispanic traditions and Catholic beliefs. It appears to have originated in Tenerife (Canary Islands), southwest of Spain, in the early 15th century and spread from there.

The celebration may actually be a vestige of an old Pagan tradition, since this date coincides with the eleventh day of the first month of the ancient Aztec calendar and the beginning of the agricultural cycle when offerings to the gods of rain and clouds (tlaloques) would have been made to assure a plentiful harvest. In many rural villages the inhabitants wear corn cobs to church to be blessed.

Nino Dios, Taxco, MexicoIn Mexico, Dia de la Candelaria is an extension of the Christmas holiday season. (And you wondered why the Christmas decorations were still up in all their bedraggled splendor…)  On Christmas Eve a statue of the niño Dios (baby Jesus) is placed in the nativity scene; on January 6th, Three King’s Day, the child is brought presents from the magi or kings; and on February 2nd, the statue is dressed in fine clothes and presented and blessed in the church (be sure to check out the link above to see what these dolls look like) after which it is placed in a niche where it remains the rest of the year.

Rosca de Reyes

Rosca de Reyes

Similarly, Mexican children receive gifts on Christmas Eve (the babe’s birth day) and on January 6th (when it is thought that the kings or wise men would have visited the Christ child.) Then on February 2, the doll is taken to church and whomever found a toy baby in their Rosca de Reyes (wreath of the kings) bread on January 6th, hosts a Candlemas feast consisting of tamales and atole (a thick gruel drink).

Silver corn statue, Mexico Both are predominantly made with corn; another link to Aztec ceremonies.

I find it interesting that February 2 also marks the mid-way point between the winter solstice and spring equinox which has long been thought to be a marker or predictor of the weather to come. In the US we call it Groundhog Day and according to tradition, if the ground hog sees his shadow, he goes back in his hole, representing 6 more weeks of winter; if not, spring is supposedly on its way.  Often Punxsutawney Phil (Pennsylvania) and our own Wisconsin groundhog, Jimmy, will compare predictions and hopefully agree that the long, very cold winter will soon end.

Here are a couple of poems that show the connection between Candlemas and Groundhog Day.

From Scotland:

If Candle-mas Day is bright and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year.

From England::

If Candle mas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

Groundhog Day Video cvr

For a few laughs, watch your local channel (library or Netflix) for the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. What is your favorite scene?

Three Kings Day — Mexican Traditions

In Mexico, Christmas Eve and Day are a time for family. Since the whole country has at least two weeks if not a month off school and work this time of year, the whole family comes from far and wide to gather around the dinner table on Christmas Eve and share Christmas Day together, for the most part quietly. The children may receive a small gift or two, mostly from visiting relatives, but Three Kings Day (January 6) is the big gift day for them.

Called Epiphany elsewhere, this is the close of the Feliz Navidad season that began on December 12 with the Festival of Guadalupe. The tradition holds that this is the day (12 days after Christmas) that the three kings (wise men or magi) arrived to present gifts to the infant Jesus.

So,imitating the gift giving of the three kings, Mexican parents present gifts to their children (and each other) on this day. The night before, children set out their shoes and in the morning they are filled with small gifts, (The children of Latin America, as well as Spain, receive their gifts from the three kings rather than from Santa Claus) though now days the gifts may appear under a Christmas tree.

It is interesting that in other parts of Europe (Russia and other Orthodox lands for example) that Father Christmas comes on January 6; that date having something to do with the change to the Julian calendar.

Three Kings Day is celebrated with the eating of a special bread, Rosca de Reyes (wreath of the kings). Baked as an oval, the loaf represents a crown and is decorated with colorful dried fruits and candies to symbolize jewels.

Rosca de Reyes

Rosca de Reyes

A doll figure is hidden inside, representing hiding Jesus from King Herod’s troops. (You might recognize this tradition as part of Mardi Gras celebrations when kings cake is served.)The person who gets the slice with the doll inside must host a party on the dia de candelaria (day of the candles or candle mass) on February 2. (More on that in February.)

Another Mexican tradition was also upheld, as I was awakened at midnight by firecrakers and cherry bombs going off in the callejon (alley) behind my house.

Fuegos Artificiales

Fireworks, Taxco, MexicoYouth counts down until midnight to celebrate the arrival of a new year. Maturity counts down until midnight to celebrate the time that they can finally get to bed. –Andrew Peloquin

If you are one of the mature ones reading this you know how true those words are.  The traditions for welcoming in the new year are not that different in Mexico than in the States, except they are a little more random, unregulated, and engaged in by crazy drunks with firearms and no designated drivers.

Being in the center of town, I was treated to quite a sight at midnight as fireworks filled the night sky. And when I say filled, I mean filled.

From the Christo statue at the very tippy-top of town, to the Guadalupe church a little lower, to the small church near the center of Taxco, to the other side of the mountain at the Mission, to the top again at Hotel Montetaxco, fireworks exploded in a 360 degree arc from my balcony.   In addition, people in the streets shot off fireworks and bottle rockets of their own which whistled, popped, and lit up the sky with at least a few strayed dangerously toward neighbors houses into the wee hours of the morning.

Of course, all this activity had the dogs howling and at least one car alarm going off. It was quite a cacophony that has this “mature one” seeking a good night’s sleep!

Sweet dreams everyone.

Mexican Traditions – Feliz Navidad

The holidays in Mexico are an interesting mix of indigenous, colonial, and modern somewhat international customs and traditions. I am told that the evening of December 24 is more important than the 25th here and that certainly seems to be the case.

Between December 12 (the Festival of Guadalupe, the Mexican virgin) and December 24, people are busy visiting neighbors delivering gifts of flowers and food, enacting las posadas, and feasting with family. There are solemn candlelight processions, raucous parades, wandering bands, pealing church bells, airworks (fireworks with just the boom), and, of course, children battering pinatas until treats shower down upon them.

Being a stranger to these traditions, I watch with curiosity.

I was puzzled by a group of people that gathered before the “la purisima virgen” (the purest virgin) shrine one night. Usually people gather before the shrines to pray to the virgin or ask blessings, but this group set up a TV for video and blasted American style country western music while a mass of human bodies, jumped , writhed, and shouted to the beat and the direction of a microphoned emcee. I wondered if the shrine was just a good landmark at which to meet because any religious significance escaped me.

Pinatas- Taxco, MexicoThough there are signs of North American Christmas traditions, colored lights, Christmas carols (en espanol of course), and even decorated trees mostly in more well-to-do houses, the pinata is the traditional Mexican decoration and hangs everywhere.

Pinatas overhead- Taxco, MexicoThey are very different from the cartoon character type pinatas sold in the States. These have seven pointed cones that, in the Mexican Catholic tradition represent man’s struggle against the seven deadly sins; the beating with the stick represents the struggle against temptation and evil, and when it breaks the rewards of keeping the faith. As with many traditions, this one had its roots in the Mayan celebration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, which was celebrated in mid-December, and was adapted into the Catholic traditions in this area by Augustinian monks in the late 1500s.

Breaking the pinata


Several nights, a group of children gathered in the alley behind my house to sing, shout, and take a whack at a pinata dangled above them by one of their parents. Their faith kept for another year.

Zocolo_poinsettias - Taxco, MexicoPoinsettias are also prevalent. The Aztecs called them “Cuetlaxochitl;” the sap was used to control fevers (Mexican willow bark?) and the bracts were used to make a reddish dye. The first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, is credited with introducing the plant to America and since “Cuetlaxochitl” was so hard to say, as it became a popular Christmas decoration, the name was changed to honor him. Thousands of potted poinsettias, creating one giant poinsettia blossom, fills much of the street at the zocolo (the park/plaza at the center of town.) Though beautiful to look at, it hampers traffic (both foot and vehicle) even more than usual. With thousands of “vacaciones” in town, that is not necessarily a good thing; the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets are often filled, but the past couple weeks, the mob of bodies and cars often brings all movement to a standstill. Just the normal act of going to the market is nearly impossible due to the crowded conditions.

Zocolo - Taxco, MexicoThe zocolo is also the center of culture and entertainment. It is where everything important happens and where everyone gathers — to sit and feed the birds, play chess, see and greet friends, and watch the mariachi band serenade a special girl or teenagers posturing and giggling. This is also the center of entertainment both formal and informal — political presentations, musical performances, dancing troupes, and other activities.

Harlequin on stilts, Taxco, MexicoSaturday afternoon, the local Rotary Club sponsored a fund-raising campaign that may or may not have been related to a pile of blankets, the Red Cross, and a shiny new car. There was a dance contest, some local kids performing traditional dances, minstrels, masked harlequins on 6 foot stilts, balloons, racing cars with nowhere to go so they just revved their engines, and more. I really felt for the clown, on stage in the direct and very hot sun, keeping up non-stop banter and dancing the gorilla song (whoot, whoot, whoot, whoot) with contestants, while readjusting his red nose every 30 seconds to keep it from sliding off. His partner was doing much better; she painted her red nose on.

As promised on December 12th, all the celebration came to a head last night, with many parties, much music, singing, and laughter floating through the air. There was also much shouting (pinatas?), cherry bombs, airworks, agitated dogs barking, church bells ringing, and generally noisy festivities into the wee hours of the morning. Today all is quiet. At least until Three Kings Day on January 6th.

Festival of Guadalupe

I never quite understood the idea of the 12 days of Christmas until I came to Mexico this year. It seems that the biggest day of the whole Feliz Navidad (Happy Nativity, aka Christmas) season is December 12, when Mexican Catholics commemorate a feast day for Guadalupe (the Mexican virgin and mother of Jesus). They go on to celebrate the season day by day until its culmination on December 24.

Little did I know when I made my travel plans from Mexico City to Taxco that travel would be hampered by roads clogged with shrines on the back of pickup trucks followed by ardent believers called pilgrims on foot and bicycle slowly making their way to the main Cathedral of Guadalupe in downtown Mexico City, and in smaller numbers to other towns with churches dedicated to her, like Taxco.  (Sorry I don’t have pictures.) So what are usually 4 lane highways clogged with traffic racing to and from town become one lane slowed to the pace of a burro (walker or bike rider) trying to get out of that lane and into the one next to it so they can race on by the “obstruction” only to get caught up in a similar situation a few miles further along. Not only are the roads clogged with the faithful but school is out for a month and everyone is trying to get “home for the holidays.”

The trip to Taxco which usually takes 2.5 hours, took over 3. But, I arrived safe and sound to Irma’s house where my room and a joyous reunion with her and her grandchildren and later on my English speaking friends commenced.  Sleep was a bit disturbed due to the revelers, the bands, and the “airworks” (fireworks without the fire, only the boom) into the wee hours of the morning. I was so exhausted from traveling though that after midnight when most of the noise settled down, I slept soundly.

Blue Bear in bedIt feels like home – Mexican style.