Our Lady of Guadalupe, Fiesta of

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Fiesta of

Type of Holiday: Religious (Roman Catholic)
Date of Observation: December 12
Where Celebrated: Mexico City, Mexico
Symbols and Customs: Dark Madonna, "Las Mañanitas," Matachin Dance, Roses, Tilma


The celebration in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, also known as the DARK MADONNA , is a Christian festival that is held in Mexico City each year on December 12. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

The Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe dates back to 1531, just ten years after Hernando Cortez, the Spanish conquistador, overthrew Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztec Indian empire. That was also only a few years after the first Christian missionaries arrived there. An Aztec Indian who had just recently been converted to Christianity was walking through the dry, rugged hills just north of the newly renamed capital, Mexico City, on his way to church when he passed a hill called Tepeyac, where a temple dedicated to the Aztec earth goddess had once stood. Suddenly he heard music, and the Virgin Mary appeared and called him by his Christian name, Juan Diego. She instructed him to go to the bishop of Mexico and tell him to build a church on the same site where the Aztecs had worshipped their goddess. The bishop thought Juan Diego had fabricated his story and refused to take him seriously. The Virgin appeared to Juan Diego again the next day, and he dutifully made another appeal to the bishop, who told him to go away and not to return until he could present proof of this divine request.

When Juan Diego encountered the Virgin a third time on December 12, 1531, she told him to pick some of the ROSES that were growing nearby-roses that were in full bloom despite the fact that it was winter-and bring them to the bishop. Diego gathered them in his TILMA or cloak and opened it in front of the bishop, who immediately recognized the red Castillian roses that grew only in his homeland, Spain. What's more, he saw imprinted on the tilma the image of a beautiful darkskinned woman, dressed in clothing that made her pregnancy unmistakable, framed by the rays of the sun. The bishop immediately knew that this was a sign from God and that Diego was telling the truth. A shrine was built on the site, and it was named "Guadalupe" for two reasons. First, the Virgin had identified herself as the "ever-virgin Holy Mary coatlaxopeuh"-a Nahuatl word for "who crushes the serpent"-and the Spanish religious officials had misunderstood the word, which is pronounced kwat-la-supe. Second, Guadalupe was the name of a village in Spain where a similar miracle had occurred. The Basilica of Guadalupe was built near this same site in the early eighteenth century.

Today, thousands of pilgrims flock to the Basilica-many of them walking on their knees-to participate in a special Mass and to see the image of Our Lady that has been miraculously preserved since it first appeared on Juan Diego's cloak more than 450 years ago. There are processions through the streets, with people in traditional Mexican dress carrying red roses or poinsettias, and it is a popular time for the performance of the MATACHIN dance and the singing of the traditional Mexican folk song known as " LAS MAÑANITAS ." Although the largest celebration is held in Mexico City, there are fiestas in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe all over Mexico on December 12 as well as in areas of the southwestern United States where the Spanish influence remains strong. It is said that only the French shrine at Lourdes attracts as many pilgrims as the Basilica of Guadalupe.


Dark Madonna

The image of the dark-skinned Virgin who appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 and who can still be seen on his TILMA wears a blue-green outer cloak covered with stars, supposedly in the same configuration as they appeared in the sky that night. She is surrounded by the rays of the sun, symbolic of the fact that Christianity superseded the worship of the Aztec sun god, and she is standing on a crescent moon. She also has a black sash around her waist, which is something that pregnant women wore in sixteenth-century Mexico. In the shapes formed by the reflections in her eyes, scientists have found the profiles of as many as eighteen different people, one of whom is believed to be Juan Diego.

The Dark Madonna remains not only a symbol of Mexican Christianity but of Mexican nationalism. With her coppery skin and Indian features, she symbolizes the pride of the indigenous Mexican people, who were forced to give up their gods and rituals when the light-skinned Europeans arrived.

"Las Mañanitas"

It is popular, particularly for children, to sing the folk song known as "Las Mañanitas" at the Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is both a morning song and a birthday song, used to greet people and to honor the Virgin Mary on her special day.

Matachin Dance

The Matachin dance-drama, which is still performed on this day in Mexican villages and in the Indian pueblos of the southwestern United States, originally reenacted the conflict between the Moors and the Christians (see MOORS AND CHRISTIANS FIESTA ). The Spanish brought it to Mexico and used it to dramatize the arrival of Catholicism there. Although Matachin dances vary from one location to another, there are certain standard characters who always appear. They include La Malinche, who stands for innocence and is usually played by a young girl; El Toro, the bull, who is killed; El Abuelo, a clown-like figure; and El Monarca, the leader of the dance. A central feature of the performance is La Transa (the Braids), in which the dancers weave ribbons around a maypole. The Matachin dancers wear colorful outfits and tall headdresses, with handkerchiefs or fringes partially concealing their faces. The music is provided by a violin and a guitar, and the dancers keep time by shaking gourd rattles. The dance represents an unusual merging of European music with Native American movements.


The red roses that Juan Diego gathered to prove to the bishop that he had really seen the Virgin Mary were miraculous on two counts: No roses at all-let alone the red Castillian variety (from Castile in central Spain)-were native to Mexico, and surely none would be blooming on such inhospitable ground in early December. Although several varieties of roses were eventually introduced by the Spanish colonists, they were a rarity in Mexico in the early sixteenth century.

Today, roses and poinsettias, which traditionally bloom in December, are carried in the processions that take place at the Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a symbol of the Virgin's miraculous appearance to Juan Diego in 1531.


The tilma on which the Dark Madonna's image appears is a simple handmade cape or cloak with a seam running down the center whose fabric is made from the tropical plant known as agave, which is a succulent similar to cactus. Such a fabric would normally be expected to last no more than twenty years, but Juan Diego's tilma has remained intact despite being repeatedly touched for many years, on display for centuries thereafter, and, at one point, having nitric acid spilled all over it. As far as the authenticity of the image is concerned, scientists who have examined the tilma have never been able to find any evidence of ink or paint, which would suggest that the image had been deliberately drawn or painted by someone.


Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Haven, Kendall. New Year's to Kwanzaa: Original Stories of Celebration. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Resources, 1999. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Merin, Jennifer, and Elizabeth B. Burdick. International Directory of Theatre, Dance, and Folklore Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990.


Inside Mexico www.inside-mexico.com/guadalupe.htm

Mexico Connect www.mexconnect.com/mex_/guadalupe.html www.mexconnect.com/ mex_/travel/ldumois/ldguadalupe.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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