While the Feast of Guadalupe might originally be a Catholic celebration, it has a ‘come one, come all’ attitude to it that’s turned it into one of Mexico’s brightest, most exciting and inclusive festivals. If the idea of live music, colourful costumes and even gaudily decorated cars appeals to you, then the Feast of Guadalupe ought to feature on your holiday calendar. Expect a celebration like no other, lit by flickering torches, with traditional dancing, a veritable tapestry of bunting and, given that it’s a feast, more mouth-watering Mexican food than you can shake a sombrero at!
A real winter warmer
The Feast of Guadalupe takes place in Mexico City on December 12th. While this might be bleak midwinter for those of us in the Western Hemisphere, Mexico enjoys temperatures of between 24°C and 28°C, at this time of year, making it perfect weather for a winter break!
While the feast is celebrated in churches and homes across Mexico, if you really want to soak up the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of an authentic Mexican celebration, you’ll want to aim for the Basilica de Guadalupe. This is the focus of the national festivities, where you’ll find a two-million strong crowd made up of partygoers and the pious in equal measure.
The story behind the celebration
This event has its roots in the 16th Century. In 1531, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego. Diego was an Aztec who had converted to Catholicism. He was on his way to Mass, when he heard music and a woman’s voice calling his name in his native tongue. He followed the sounds to the top of the hill at Tepeyac, where the apparition took place. Mary asked Diego to tell Mexico’s bishop to build a church on the hill in her honour. However, the bishop didn’t believe Diego. But Mary appeared to him again, telling him not to give up.
According to the story, Diego tried (and failed) three times to get the bishop to come to Tepeyac. Eventually, however, the bishop conceded that he might take matters more seriously if there was evidence of a miracle. On reporting this back to Mary, she told Diego to pick some roses from the hill and arrange them in his cloak before returning to the bishop. When Diego arrived, he opened his cloak and the roses fell out, revealing an image of the Virgin Mary ‘printed’ on the cloak’s interior!
The church was built and Diego’s cloak has been preserved, still apparently bearing the image that the story refers to. The appearance of Mary is one of the first religious apparitions to have been fully recognised by the Catholic church. Whether you believe the story or not, the church is still a wonderful place for contemplation and a little peace and quiet, at any other time of the year, that is!
What to expect
The Feast of Guadalupe marks these events in the colourful carnival style that bring a real sense of joy to the whole event. If you’re in the country during the run-up to the celebrations, the first thing you’re likely to notice is the stream of gaudily-decorated cars, trucks and bicycles that make their way towards the Basilica. There seems to be something of an unspoken competition between the locals to see who can pull off the most brightly-embellished vehicle and the unofficial parade is something of an attraction in itself!
Food, food… and more food
In keeping with the festival’s name, the centrepiece of the celebrations is the food. Restauranteurs, street vendors and locals alike line the streets with grills, ovens and a huge range of fresh ingredients, to create traditional tacos and tortillas alongside other foods such as gorditas (a spicy pasty), carnitas (a dish of slow-cooked pork), atole (hot drinks thickened with maize) and pozole (a highly-spiced meat stew). If you want to taste authentic Mexican food, this is the place for you!
However, if you’re not feeling that adventurous, you’ll find plenty of burgers, pizza, and chips on offer. The eating part of the celebrations is where you’ll find your Thomas Cook Cash Passport very handy; just pop to one of the nearby cashpoints and you’ll be able to withdraw enough pesos to see you through the night, safe in the knowledge that you’ve locked into the best exchange rates possible.
Fireworks and dancing
Even if you’re not religious, it’s difficult not to be moved by the sight of thousands of people taking part in an enormous Mass and the acts of charity that occur all through the evening. Many of Mexico’s poor come to the feast and you’ll see vendors and locals giving away free food and drink, creating a real sense of community and welcome for everyone.
After Mass, the celebrations get properly underway, kicked off by an astonishing firework display that lights up the Basilica, the square, and Mexico City’s incredible skyline. Then, for worshippers, it’s off to the church on Tepeyac Hill, to mark the spot where the Virgin Mary appeared to Diego over 500 years ago.
Among the crowds, you’re likely to see groups of people dressed in the spectacular costumes of the ancient Mayans. At certain points in the evening, they’ll take the spotlight and burst into traditional dances, before heading towards Tepeyac Hill, symbolising the conversion of the old ‘pagan’ ways to Catholicism.
In addition, in the grounds of the Basilica, you can see the grave of Juan Diego, who was later sainted.
If you want a memento of one of Mexico’s most thrilling and colourful festivals, you’ll find plenty of shops near the Basilica, selling everything from posters and pictures to statues and jewellery. Given the crowds, carrying a pocketful of pesos isn’t always a good idea but, if you’ve got your Thomas Cook Cash Passport with you, you can use it as you would a debit or credit card, secure in the knowledge that, should it get lost or stolen, there’s Global Assistance on hand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Feast of Guadalupe shows off the best of Mexico, from colourful costumes and tastebud-tingling food, to its religious history and ‘open arms’ attitude. If you want to enjoy an authentic, Mexican carnival atmosphere and live like the locals do, if only for a night, then 12 December is a date that you absolutely have to put in your holiday calendar!