Saturday Edition: Cinco de Mayo and Actual Mexican Holidays

People often think Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence day and that all of Mexico celebrates this holiday in epic ways. It used to annoy me when people would be shocked that I wasn’t going to do anything for Cinco de Mayo. They’d be like, “Why aren’t you celebrating your independence? We do it here on July 4th and we celebrate yours on cinco de mayo!” Ugh. But you know, this doesn’t bug me anymore. I just kinda roll with it, since I’m sure St Patrick’s day is probably not the Irish Independence day either, but I mistakenly think it could be? ha. So these days only if people ask me, do I give them the scoop.

(disclaimer, this might not be the most accurate detail on how shit went down, since I learned all this way back in high school in Mexico.)

Story time!

A long, long time ago down in Mexico. The country was having issues with paying back a huge amount of foreign debt. So, the president at the time, Benito Juarez (who was the first totally native Mexican president and overall badass) had a great idea. He decided not to pay back any foreign debts for two years and instead focus on making the country rock.

Naturally, the lending countries of Britain, Spain and France were not okay with this, so they sent over armies to kick our asses and make us pay up. The President worked out deals with Britain and Spain so they turned around and went back home. BUT Napoleon had other plans. He decided this was the perfect time to attack Mexico, conquer it and set up a French territory so that he could then move up and conquer the US, who was currently fighting some sort of war of their own. (Lauren edit: hahaha)

So Napoleon sends over like 10,000 of the best French soldiers ever to Veracruz. Once there, they end up in Puebla. The locals did not like this one bit, so they gathered a few thousand men and kicked the French army’s ass out of their country. This took place on May 5th. 18something-or-other, but well after the actual day of independence.

This victory was nice as a morale booster, but it was very short lived. Napoleon sent back a shit ton of troops and ended up kicking our asses and installing an Emperor, Maximilano in Mexico. This only lasted for about 3 years though, when the Mexican people had enough of that shit, sacked the castle and publicly killed the poor Maximiliano who honestly just got the crappy end of the deal (or something). Thus, the Mexicans became French free and independent once again. But this did not take place on May 5th.

Anyways, the May 5th battle is only remembered in the small Puebla region in Mexico and is not celebrated at all outside of that. Except for… in the US of A! Where the country goes nuts with sombreros, fake mustaches, poor Mexican impersonations and booze. Lots of it. Drinko de Mayo!

I honestly don’t know why they celebrate this here. Maybe it’s a commercial thing started by beer companies and bars? Or maybe because had Mexico lost on May 5th, Napoleon would’ve moved up and conquered the US since they weren’t really in any condition to fight what with their own wars and such at that time? But really, it’s more of an American holiday at this point that celebrates Mexican heritage. Mexican Independence day is actually on September 16th and it is one of my favorite Mexican holidays. Which brings me to the real topic of today’s post: My top Mexican holidays!

These are in no particular order:

El Dia de la Independencia

Every year on September 15th the 2 day long celebration of Mexico’s independence begins. First with concerts, music, dancing and people gathering across the country in local plazas and homes. My family always got together in the evening for the main event which took place around 11:30pm on the 15th.

In the country’s main plaza in the capitol (El Zocalo) the President of Mexico walks out onto the bacony of the national palace that overlooks the Zocalo (which at this point is filled with half the population of Mexico), holding a giant flag. He then proceeds to shout out the same little chant honoring the history behind the day. Mimicking what the one priest dude did back in Dolores when he declared Mexican independence from Spain.

At the end of his speech, the President then shouts out at the top of his lungs:

“VIVA MEXICO!”

“VIVA MEXICO!”

“VIVA MEXICO!”

…and then rings a bell just like priest dude did. At this point the entire country goes apeshit for 2 days. Celebrating, eating, dancing, singing and of course drinking. My family and I would always watch this on TV. Once, we actually went to the Zocalo after the shout to check it out. It was nuts!

This was always my favorite holiday because we wouldn’t have school for a couple of days.   The 15th with the shout, the 16th with the actual parade and more celebration. And then on the 17th it was my birthday! So yes, 3 days of celebration for me! What’s not to love?

Last year, Lauren and I actually watched the shout on TV in our apartment here. I wanted to show her what it was like, and also I really missed this since it’s been years since I was in Mexico during that time. I’d love to do this again there for my birthday one day.

El Dia de Reyes

Or, the Day of the Kings. During Christmas time, after we get presents from our family on the 24th and from Santa on the 25th, we have one more day of gift receiving and celebration in Mexico! On January 5th, we go to bed and wake up to presents delivered by the 3 Kings (3 wise men). We get 3 presents – one from each King – and traditionally the presents go in your shoe, which we would leave out the night before under the tree.

Then in the evening we all gather for Rosca de Reyes, a giant circular cake with dried pieces of fruit on it. Now the fun part was that each cake, had a tiny plastic baby Jesus hidden inside it. Each person took their turn to cut themselves a piece of cake. And if your piece had the baby Jesus, guess what? You were obligated by law to host a tamale party in your house on your dime on Feb 2nd. NO EXCEPTIONS! Baby Jesus demands it.

So naturally this was my favorite part since we would see my entire family freak out cos no one really wanted to get the poor baby Jesus. And, as kids if we got it the parents would have to host the party. HaHa. One time, my uncle was cutting the cake and he felt the plastic Jesus under his knife. Without missing a step and with a full on poker face, he continued to cut… hard. Chopping the poor kid in half! We had tamales at his house that year.

Another fun memory was when our Rosca ended up having two baby Jesuses (Jesii?) inside it! This was a fluke, but later in Feb, we had two separate tamale parties. Yum.

El Dia de los Muertos

The Day of the Dead. This is basically our “Halloween” since we don’t have Halloween. But instead of going out and about getting candy from strangers while wearing costumes, in Mexico this day is about celebrating death and remembering our deceased friends and family. (Lauren Edit: I hate this holiday with a fiery passion.)

The holiday is spread across 2 days (cos that’s how we roll… with multiple days off work too.) On November 1st, it’s about remembering those under 18, November 2nd is for those over 18. Each house sets up a little altar (or a giant one if you’re a little cray cray) to place photos of our dead people (our fallen brothers if you will). We then place their favorite foods and drinks and leave them there overnight. We love eating and drinking, so we figure we might still love it after we die too. (Probably not.)

We also place these delicious sugar and/or chocolate Calaveras (skulls) with hard candy and chocolate decorations all over the place. (Lauren Edit: Which I find unbelievably creepy) While we never eat the food for the altar, we do nosh hardcore on these Skulls and other goodies throughout Nov 1st and 2nd (and 3rd and 4th since we always have leftovers…) Finally, neighborhoods always get together and celebrate in the streets with fun skull art, sculptures, food, drinks, and over all happy celebrations. We don’t mind death in Mexico. It’s just part of life.

El Dia del Amor y la Amistad

The day of love and friendship. This is Valentine’s day. But with one major difference. In Mexico, this day is about celebrating all loved ones, spouses, family and friends alike. We show appreciation for those who are close to us on this day and it’s not just about couples. I always did prefer this, since no one was ever left out. Unless of course you were an asshole who hated everyone and had no friends.

We would do the same things. Give candies, cards, chocolates, obnoxious balloons, flowers, puppies, etc… but to everyone we loved, cared for and were friends with.

I bet more people would totally get into this day here in the US if they made it more about love and friendship and less about having a S.O. Like me, I never had a girlfriend in middle school or high school (ps I was living in Mexico City during this time). BUT. On valentine’s day I always had tons of cards, candies and chocolates. Noms.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

18 thoughts on “Saturday Edition: Cinco de Mayo and Actual Mexican Holidays”

  1. Mexico knows how to celebrate!

    And Lauren, I can’t believe you the Dia de los Muertos! I love it. I love the colors and skulls and the whole deal. Way better than Halloween.

    1. OK, Dias de Los Muertos is not the equivalent of halloween. It’s just around the same time, but halloween has nothing to do with our dead relatives. Here are the reasons I hate it:
      1) Making a shrine to the dead is creepy
      2) Making the focus of their past life be their death is frustrating for me.
      3) I’m not a fan of skulls. (but mostly it’s the other two)

      1. I know it’s not really related to Halloween, but since the two days are so close they sort of inevitably get compared. But I hear you. I don’t think the holiday can be everyone’s favorite.

        And, I know it’s totally weird, but I kind of like the skulls. Have you seen the little skeleton figurines that are doing things? Like playing tennis or dancing or something? You probably think those are unbelievably creepy, but I think they are hilarious. 🙂

  2. Kamel! This was the best! I was so happy to see this, because Donnie and I just had a really angsty conversation over dinner last night in which we distress-edly admitted to each other that we knew nothing about Cinco de Mayo, but agreed that it was probably an American hallmark holiday of sorts, aka an excuse to drink tequila. Which, I will never turn down, but still.

    So I just read this whole thing out loud to Donnie, and he loved it, as did I. We laughed so many times –Jesuses (Jesii?)– you are a great writer, just like your wifey! Thanks for illuminating us!!

  3. I love celebrating dia de los muertos. Most mexicans spend the night at the cemetery which I’d like to do someday.

    Mexi Independence is always the highest rated show in our network but, for us, sep 17 is still more important!

  4. I love it. Of course we senselessly celebrate the Fifth of May just because. Hah, thanks for writing this, Kamel!! Your actual Independence Day also feels kind of awesomer. Hmm….

    So, Lauren, I can see why you find Dia de los Muertos creepy in some ways. (the “in some ways” refers to me, not you) I grew up in a Buddhist-lite household so I’m used to the whole having-an-altar to the dead folks in your family thing, but for us it was a very “oh we tell stories about them all the time, quick stop at the altar and light incense in their memory to pay respects and say hi!” kind of thing. Also you light incense when you “give” them food too, but we totally eat the food after the incense burns down. ‘Cause the spirit of the food’s done and we’re not about waste. 🙂 So I understood the sentiment/philosophy behind the practice even if I and my family didn’t really practice the full thing.

    But then later in life, I experienced people practicing F’real Buddhism, or hardcore sects of Buddhism and it absolutely creeped me out. Not the sect itself but the way this set of people practiced and how they forced the death to take over their own lives and it became all about that. It dominated part of my life too and I strongly resented it. It wasn’t even about celebrating the life, even though they immediately turned around the *minute* MY mom died and told me not to be sad about it because her soul shouldn’t be held back by me, it was about dwelling on the death by commemorating it over and over (and over). And I highly resented that too, of course. So yeah, I can see why you’d be creeped out, when the angle is tilted too far in a certain direction, I think it’s just … too much.

    1. I so appreciate your honesty in this one. I really love different cultures from my own and learning about them and experience their histories and traditions. I think that death is such a powerful thing that it can be easily misused. Dia De los Muertos seems to be a very joyful occasion, but! I just can’t dig the whole “let’s focus on the fact that they died” thing. I can’t get on board. In my family we love love love telling stories about everything, and that includes people who have died. And I feel like, for me, that’s the perfect amount of honoring. I don’t even go to funerals.

      I love your perspective. I think focusing too much on death is like focusing too much on fear, it can paralyze people.

  5. I always thought El Dia de los Muertos was connected to All Saints and All Souls days in the Catholic tradition; since they’re also about remembering the dead and on the same days and I probably made a whole “Mexicans=Catholic” jump in my head. The different ages for the two days is something I never heard of; though most of what I did know I learned from places like Offbeat Bride, so it all relates to weddings. Thank you for writing about your holidays and giving the less knowledgeable among us a little more information than we knew to ask for!

    1. It is related. On the 1st of November Mexico celebrates “All saints”. Little kids who died are together with the saints in that most of the time they are allowed in heaven directly.
      Then, the real “Dia de los muertos” tradition is more of a blend of catholicism with ancient, prehispanic traditions that were there long before the Spanish came.

      And Lauren… I get how it creeps you out and how it might look weird, but it is not so much about focusing on the death, it is more about remembering and honoring the ones who passed away: the food they liked, the music that made them happy, having them among us.

      The ancient also believed that the monarch butterflies, who arrive in Mexico about at that time are the souls of the death coming back…

  6. Kamel, thanks for writing this, I always wondered why in the world americans celebrate “La batalla de Puebla “. This makes sense, kind of…

  7. I loved this post – thanks for writing it, Kamel! My dad is Mexican and my bithday is September 15 so I’ve always had way more fun celebrating el Dia de la Independencia than Cinco de Mayo (although I am American enough that I enjoy drinking excessive tequila in May for no particular reason)

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