If there’s one thing that I’ve learned since I moved to Mexico it’s that there are a LOT of holidays and traditions and people here are NOT shy about celebrating them. This is one of the things that I love about Mexico as an extranjera. Though I won’t lie, it did take some getting used to.
When I first arrived in Mexico I seemed to fall asleep frequently to the sounds of firecrackers, pulsing music, and other indicators of a party. Initially, I just assumed we lived in a lively neighborhood, but Héctor was always quick to inform me that our neighbors were actually just celebrating one festive day or another. Whether it be Dia de la Albañil (celebrating construction workers), Dia del Maestro (celebrating teachers), or a fiesta patronal (a day celebrating a particular saint) there ALWAYS seems to be something going on.
While many of Mexico’s holidays probably aren’t of interest to travelers, there are quite a few that are, and participating in these events is a wonderful way to learn about Mexican culture. You probably already know of some, such as Dia de Muertos, but trust me, that’s just the beginning.
The following list is by no means exhaustive, but I wanted to share some of the traditions that may be of interest to travelers.
I asked Héctor to help me write this article to make sure we did justice to each of the celebrations. Over the past two years, we have experienced most of these events in one way or another, but the true meaning of each one wasn’t necessarily clear to me at the time. I still have a lot to learn!
Most of these are holidays and traditions but we also included a couple of major festivals that we are personally dying to attend and believe you will be too once you hear about them. Who knows, maybe you’ll be planning your next Mexico vacation around one of these events!
- 1 Mexican Holidays and Traditions to Experience
- 1.1 Dia de Muertos – October 31 – Nov 2
- 1.2 Independence Day – September 15th & 16th
- 1.3 Semana Santa – Easter
- 1.4 Las Posadas – December
- 1.5 Dia de Reyes – January 6th
- 1.6 Dia de la Madre – May 10th
- 1.7 Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe – December 12th
- 1.8 Dia de la Revolución – November 20th
- 2 Mexican Festivals to Attend
- 3 How to Be A Respectful Participant in Mexican Holidays and Traditions
Mexican Holidays and Traditions to Experience
Dia de Muertos – October 31 – Nov 2
Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead as we know it in English, is a holiday dating back to pre-Columbian times which celebrates the lives of our departed loved ones.
Each year in late October, families build altars, or ofrendas, in honor of loved ones who have passed away. They adorn the altars with flowers, papel picado, candles, and photos of the people they wish to remember. Many people also place food and other items that their loved ones enjoyed within the altar.
Some families like to decorate the tomb of their departed family members and will even sit in the cemetery on the Dia de Muertos and share a meal with them. It is said that on these days the souls of the dead return to earth to share time with their living family members.
Because this holiday has increased in popularity in recent years due to attention in the media it’s common for businesses and organizations to create ofrendas as well. Though they may not be dedicated to anyone in particular, these altars are often creative and artistic.
How to participate:
There’s no question that Day of the Dead is a beautiful tradition and it’s natural to want to participate. However, it is a very personal holiday so it’s important to participate respectfully.
That said, many towns in Mexico have Day of the Dead festivities that are geared toward the public. This makes it easy to appreciate the festivities without encroaching on anyone’s intimate celebration. There are often parades, public ofrendas, and even art exhibitions in honor of the holiday.
Where to be:
Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico but some places have more elaborate festivities than others. Mexico City is known for a huge Day of the Dead parade along Avenida Reforma. The cities of Oaxaca, Merida, and Guanajuato are known for hosting many public events and art exhibitions in the days surrounding the holiday. These cities are also known for having gorgeous, festive decorations throughout the city streets.
Regardless of where you are in Mexico during Dia de Muertos, you’re sure to experience some sort of celebration. Don’t feel that you’ll miss out if you don’t make it to one of the locations mentioned above!
Independence Day – September 15th & 16th
Contrary to what many extranjeros believe, Mexican Independence Day does NOT fall on May 5th. Independence Day celebrations begin the night of September 15th and continue the next day. Although technically Mexico achieved independence on September 21st, 11 years after the main battle started, people celebrate the day the movement originally began. This day is best known as El Grito de Dolores, or simply El Grito. On September 15th, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo started the independence movement in the town of Dolores (now called Dolores-Hidalgo) in Guanajuato. From there, he and his army marched south to the capital to face the Spanish conquerors.
El Grito is a major event everywhere in the country, full of pride, color, and joy. Festivities begin at 11 pm on September 15th. At this time, all of the representatives of the main government in each state and city, along with the President, stand out on their correspondent office’s balcony which leads to the city or town’s main square where typically there is a crowd gathered. They make a speech commemorating their national heroes and finish with el grito: Viva México! This is followed by fireworks, dinner and a long night of celebration.
How to participate in Mexican Independence Day?
On the night of el grito it is standard to find celebrations pretty much anywhere in Mexico. I recommend going to a Mexican restaurant where you can indulge in the best traditional dishes, accompanied by mariachi, ranchero, or bolero music. You are in for a night of tequila and good spirits!
Another way to participate in the celebration is to visit a city’s zócalo. In most places, there will be fireworks, concerts, or some type of performance. If you choose to do this, exercise extreme caution as pickpockets are typically looking for a payday during events like this.
In most of the towns and cities of Mexico, September 15th is considered a noche libre, meaning citizens can drink publicly without consequences (though, nothing is guaranteed). As with any alcohol-fuelled event, be cautious because it’s not uncommon for a few people to become out of control.
Where to celebrate Independence Day in Mexico?
To be honest, I’d say anywhere in Mexico is potentially good to be around those dates. Regardless, it depends on what you are looking for to experience. If you simply want to take part in the festive mood, anywhere will suffice. If you’re looking to party, larger cities are likely your best bet, as they typically offer free concerts and events. There is usually a free performance by a well-known Mexican artist in the Mexico City zócalo on this day.
Semana Santa – Easter
Holy Week, or Semana Santa, is a Catholic celebration preceding Easter. Semana Santa’s date is determined using the Lunar calendar, and it is usually in April, though the specific date varies every year.
Technically the holiday is based on a religious event (Easter), and there are many religious celebrations that occur during these days. However, for many people the focus of Semana Santa is the fact that they get a long holiday from work. Students and school staff usually get two weeks off while other workers receive a puente, or, long weekend.
If you happen to be in Mexico around Semana Santa (or are planning on going), I recommend avoiding touristy destinations. They will be super busy as everyone in the country seizes the chance to take a holiday. Instead, I recommend visiting the country’s cities, as locals usually use Semana Santa as an excuse to leave them.
Cities like Mexico City and Guadalajara are good examples of places you should go around those days, as they will be less busy than usual. I don’t recommend visiting beaches during this holiday. Semana Santa is the first vacation for locals after Christmas and they flock to the coast to soak up the sun. If you don’t mind crowds, by all means, head to the beach! The mood will be jovial and festive, but rates will be high.
Las Posadas – December
Posadas are a tradition that anybody visiting Mexico in December should try to experience. This tradition is based on the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter for the baby Jesus to be born. In the days leading up to Christmas, people get together to do what they call pedir posada (ask for shelter). This entails singing traditional verses and songs.
After everyone finishes singing the verses the gathering turns into a typical party. There is generally lots of food, drinking, and even piñatas! With this in mind, Posadas are a great excuse to experience Mexican food and traditional drinks, like the delicious ponche, a fruit-based beverage (think non-alcoholic fruit punch) that is traditionally made around Christmas time.
Posadas are held throughout Mexico starting on December 13th (after Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe) and the last posada is traditionally Christmas Eve. I recommend experiencing this tradition in small cities or even pueblos, as they will be less busy and the food is likely to be better.
Dia de Reyes – January 6th
Día de Reyes, also known as Día de Los Reyes Magos, or Día de Los Santos Reyes, is celebrated on January 6th. The tradition is to eat a piece of the Rosca de Reyes, a delicious, ring-shaped sweet bread (similar to a hot crossed bun, actually) which has one or a few plastic figurines in the shape of a child embedded inside. If your slice of Rosca contains one of the figurines (called a muñequito) or it shows up when you cut it, you have to invite everyone at the gathering to eat tamales on Día de la Candelaria (February 2nd).
For some children in Mexico, the Three Wise Men stop by their houses and leave some gifts on Dia de Reyes, kind of like a Santa Claus, but on the night of January 5th.
Dia de la Madre – May 10th
Mother’s Day in Mexico is celebrated on May 10th. Mexican culture is very family oriented and when it comes to celebrating one of their own they really go all out. If you happen to be in Mexico during Mother’s Day you can expect serenades starting at midnight, some even with mariachi bands. During the day, people usually take their mom out for a nice lunch, give her all kinds of gifts and pamper her as much as they can.
Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe – December 12th
The Virgen de Guadalupe is one of the most important religious symbols in Mexico. Some people even say they don’t believe in most of the orthodox version of Catholic history and yet they are devoted to her. There is even a religious branch named “Guadalupanos” and she serves as the idol and symbol for most of them.
The legend says that on December 12th the Virgin appeared to a man named Juan Diego, ordering him to start the process of building her a temple, and as a proof to the clergy, he brought an ayate (a piece of fabric made of maguey plants) with flowers that left her image impregnated in it. Though initially skeptical, the bishop finally saw the Virgin appear and deemed that it was indeed necessary to build a church on that spot as she requested.
Mexicans celebrate her day by having a big mass in La Basílica de Guadalupe, which is built on the Tepeyac hill, north of Mexico City. Each year millions of people travel from all around the country to attend the mass. Some of them travel thousands of miles on foot, others arrive by bike or in cars and buses. In the days leading up to December 12th, it’s common to see caravans of people traveling in the direction of Mexico City for the mass. They decorate their vehicles (whatever they may be) with balloons, lights, crosses, and toot horns or blast music as they make the journey.
How to participate in the Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico?
There are three main ways to participate. The first would be to go to the Basílica the Guadalupe to pay your respects. Here you can experience the enormous mass with millions of people (in 2018 there were said to be over 10 million attendees). There are sure to be mariachi bands and even appearances by major Mexican celebrities.
If you are feeling adventurous, you could join a caravana with the rest of the pilgrims and travel thousands of miles. Alternatively, you can just cheer them along as they pass, offering them momentum to complete the journey.
Where to experience Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico?
The main place to experience it is at the Basílica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. Though, I do not recommend it unless you are highly devoted to the cause or simply love large crowds. Of course, the day is also celebrated in every place in Mexico that has a Catholic church. Wherever you are, expect to see lots of people in the streets!
Dia de la Revolución – November 20th
Dia de la Revolución celebrates the day Francisco Madero started the movement to end Porfirio Diaz’s 35-year dictatorship over Mexico. What started as a movement to end an autocratic leader ended up as a civil war and became one of the most important historical events in Mexico.
The Mexican Revolution is celebrated on November 20th. On that day there are no classes and, for most people, it’s a day off from work. Usually there are parades all over the country showing a display of Mexico’s students, teachers, local athletes, all the way up to air forces and military parades.
Mexican Festivals to Attend
Festival Internacional Cervantino – October
The Festival Internacional Cervantino (aka, Cervantino) is an arts festival that takes place in Guanajuato, Guanajuato for 3 weeks each October. What began as a festival featuring performances of short plays written by Miguel de Cervantes (you recognize him as the author of Don Quixote) has evolved into the biggest arts festival in all of Latin America. For three weeks every October, visitors from all over Mexico and the world, arrive in Guanajuato to take part in the festivities.
Check out these dancers from Peru performing at Cervantino a few years ago!
Each year Cervantino honors the art and culture of one country in the world and one of Mexico’s states. The 2019 festival is set to highlight Canada and the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Throughout the three weeks of festivities, attendees attend theatre and musical performances and art exhibitions.
I have not personally attended Cervantino (but plan to this year) but from what I’ve been told Guanajuato’s narrow streets are literally bursting with art during the festival. The events and exhibitions take place in various venues throughout the city, so everywhere you go there is said to be some form of art, music, or performance to witness.
How to Participate:
Cervantino consists of many events and exhibitions and you can make the most of it by purchasing tickets to the presentations that most interest you. If you’re on a tight budget, have no fear because there are also plenty of free events and performances that you can attend!
Where to be:
Cervantino takes place in Guanajuato, Guanajuato. The city is relatively small (under 200,000 people) and the festival is very popular, so if you plan to attend be sure to reserve accommodation in advance.
Guelaguetza Festival – July
La Guelaguetza is an event that takes place in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca every July on the two Mondays following July 16th. The festivities take place on the Cerro de Fortín as they have since pre-Columbian times. Due to its timing and location, the festival is also referred to as Los Lunes del Cerro, which translates to “Mondays on the hill.”
On these dates, indigenous groups from throughout the state arrive in the capital city to put on a festival highlighting regional music, dance performances, textiles, crafts, and food specialties. The celebration includes parades as well as stage performances, offering attendees plenty of opportunities to participate!
One of our favorite travel vloggers, Alanxelmundo, shares a peek at what it’s like to attend La Guelaguetza!
How to Participate:
Where to be:
La Guelaguetza takes place in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca each year in July. The dates of the event change each year, but it takes place on the two Mondays following July 16th, unless one of them happens to land on Benito Juarez Day, in which case the festival is pushed back one week. This festival is really popular so if you plan to attend, book accommodation well in advance!
How to Be A Respectful Participant in Mexican Holidays and Traditions
These Mexican celebrations are all fun and alluring, even to visitors from other countries, but it’s important to be a respectful participant.
For Mexican people, many of these traditions are quite personal (particularly the religious ones). Though, most of the time people are happy to share their culture with you. It’s important that you don’t make anyone feel that you’re turning their sentimental tradition into a caricature for your travel journal.
Don’t be intrusive, and always follow cues from the people around you.
And don’t forget to have fun!