By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Nobel prize winner Octavio Paz, an acute observer of Mexican culture, cogently described fiestas, “with their violent primary colors, their bizarre costumes and dances, their fireworks and ceremonies and their inexhaustible welter of surprises: the fruit, candy, toys,” as the very life blood of Mexicanos. So it should not be surprising that many holidays in Mexico are relatively recent additions to the calendar. Some began as grassroots celebrations by immigrants or by Mexicanos who learned about the holiday when living in the U.S.; when they returned to Mexico they introduced the practice to their friends and neighbors, and gradually the celebration spread. Others were adopted but given a completely different meaning in Mexico. And several were added to the calendar of observances by Mexican government officials who were not about to allow their neighbors to the north pay honor to groups of people without doing the same.
The celebration of Halloween in Mexico as practiced in the U.S. began as a grassroots movement. Although among some Mexicanos, Halloween is considered as noxious as an exotic weed that takes over a garden, the elements of Halloween fit almost naturally as part of the Mexican culture. North of the border, children wear costumes and go door to door asking for sweets, and the corresponding option in Mexico is not “trick or treat” but sweets or basura (garbage). (But money to buy sweets will suffice.)
Common costumes in Mexico are black body suits painted front and back with a white skeleton – outfits which have long been used for other Mexican fiestas. But local stores also carry a variety of Disney-inspired outfits. Little Mexican girls appear to find princess costumes as appealing as their U.S. counterparts, perhaps more so since when Mexican girls celebrate their 15th birthdays, their dresses resemble Cinderella’s ball gown. Teens and adults also wear costumes and go to Halloween parties, but rather than traditional fiesta costumes you will increasingly see political or cinema-style costumes.
A Halloween activity in schools is pumpkin carving. Pumpkins in Mexico are dense edible squashes, unlike the almost hollow jack o’lantern variety found in pumpkin patches in the U.S. So, carving is more difficult and odiferous here. When asked if the meat of the carved pumpkin was used for cooking, a friend replied, “Not after the kids have their hands all over it.”
Since Halloween closely coincides with Day of the Dead (see Eye, October 2012 article by Alvin Starkman), an ancient basically religious holiday honoring ancestors, the two observances are often confused in the minds of non-Mexicans and, increasingly, Mexican children. Since Day of the Dead is usually celebrated for three days, children are demanding to go trick-or-treating all three nights. This confusion will be intensified by the opening scene in the latest James Bond movie Spectre:007, which features an extravagant Day of the Dead comparsa (parade) in the zócalo of Mexico City. To the uninitiated, this may appear to be identical to a U.S. Halloween parade albeit on a grander scale.
Saint Patrick’s Day is a holiday that has a deep meaning unique to Mexico. During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), around 200 soldiers in the U.S. Army – many of Irish decent – deserted and joined the Mexican Army. Various explanations of why they chose to do so have been offered. Perhaps they were driven by ideology, since as immigrants who had experienced discrimination they identified with the Mexicans living in the U.S. southern states. Perhaps they deserted for economic reasons, since the Mexican Army reportedly promised higher pay than could be earned in the U.S. Army. Perhaps it was familial ties, since relatively large numbers of Irish had migrated to Mexico during the Great Famine in Ireland.
Independent of why they joined, the Irish and other European immigrant sympathizers formed a fierce battalion called the Batallón de San Patricio (Saint Patrick). Under the leadership of John Riley and Santiago O’Leary and under a green banner proclaiming “Erin Go Bragh” (Ireland Forever), the battalion was given credit by both Mexican and U.S. leaders for winning major battles in the war. Even current Mexican presidents toast the San Patricios as they raise a glass to them on Saint Patricks’s Day.
Valentine’s Day is celebrated throughout the world and is an official saints day, commemoration day, or feast day in many Christian denominations, often including renewal of marriage vows. Valentine was the name of several prominent early Christians, and there is no consensus among scholars as to which of them is to be associated with February 14. Archeologists have determined that there was a Catacombi di San Valentino in Rome that was the destination of pilgrims for hundreds of years during the Middle Ages. The Valentino in question was buried there, and various theories ascribe the remains to a 5th century Roman martyr or to the architect who designed the basilica outside of which the grave was located. The remains were later moved, and today relics can be viewed and venerated at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome, at the Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, Ireland, and in New Minster, Winchester, England.
The celebration of Saint Valentine did not have any romantic connotations until the 14th century. The first recorded mention of Saint Valentine in connection with engagement, marriage, or love is in a poem of Geoffrey Chaucer around 1381: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day / When every byrd cometh there to choose his mate.” Only problem is – February 14 is not a time when birds would be mating in England, so Chaucer might have been referring to some other Valentine altogether. And who can forget Ophelia in Hamlet: “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day/ All in the morning betime/ And I a maid at your window/ To be your Valentine.” From such literary works do worldwide folk traditions emerge.
Widespread interest in St. Valentine’s Day started in the U.S. and Canada in the 1800s, when it was promoted by enterprising manufacturers of lace and paper cards as a means of increasing sales. Nowadays hundreds of millions of paper valentine cards are annually sold or made by hand in school classrooms, featuring hearts, Cupids, doves, and flowers. Plus millions of e-cards, love coupons, and printable electronic cards are sent each year. This has led to the snide reference to February 14 as “Hallmark’s Day.”
Aside from cards, common gifts associated with Valentine’s Day are chocolates (especially packed in heart-shaped red satin boxes), flowers (especially roses), jewelry, and Rolls Royces.
In Mexico, this holiday was genuinely imported from north of the border and has no native traditional origins. The name Día de San Valentín is known but rarely used here. The most common name in Mexico is Día del Amor y la Amistad — Day of Love and Friendship, while in other parts of Latin America it is known as Dia de los enamorados – Day of lovers, or Día del cariño – Day of affection. You will not find large displays of greeting cards in stores here weeks before the holiday, but you will see real and artificial flowers, plenty of chocolates in red wrapping, and heart-shaped balloons with the words Te amo or Felicidades. Around February 12 you may be able to track down one or two manufactured Valentine’s cards, but of the type normally traded among children, often with the “o” in Amor shaped like a heart.
School children in Mexico cut out hearts from paper on Día de la Amistad and exchange a heart, a written message, and presents with their secret friend. The secret friend is chosen randomly by drawing the name of someone in the class, and part of the fun is trying to figure out who is sending you presents and messages. The most common presents among young students are chocolates, cakes, cookies, teddy bears, and candies. Older students may exchange hearts and flowers, or may organize a humorous celebration in the classroom.
For adults it is a day for expressing that you care about close friends, not just about romantic partners. If you will be taking your friend out for dinner, you will need to make a reservation in advance on that day!
There are other imported holidays on the Mexican calendar, such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, each given a uniquely south-of-the-border flavor. Given the numerous fiestas celebrated in Mexico, visitors are likely to encounter at least one. Whichever holiday is being celebrated while you’re here, we suggest you celebrate it with your Mexican hosts and enjoy the music, dances, fireworks, colors and sweets.