Every day is special in Oaxaca city. Whether it's a private event such as a wedding or a baptism, the feast day of a patron saint or one of the major holidays, there are always reasons to celebrate throughout the year in a never-ending succession of fiestas. This lively city opens its heart to visitors and welcomes them to join in the fun and celebrate life, death, and all the moments along the way. Have a look at some of the celebrations you may experience on a trip to this beautiful colonial city.
Calendas are traditional processions that can take place any time of the year. Any number of fiestas may be preceded by a calenda. You’ll hear the firecrackers first. No, they're not cannons, and there's no cause for alarm. Your initial response may be to duck for cover. The far-off strains of music gradually develop into the unmistakable sound of an approaching brass band. Go out onto the street and you’ll see them. Following the band, women dressed in brightly colored traditional costumes carry baskets decorated with flowers on their heads. Then come the monos de calenda—huge humanoid puppets with paper mache heads rising above clothed bamboo frames. They whip back and forth, flailing their limp arms in time to the music. Inevitably, there will be more firecrackers. You’ll be forewarned by a shrill whistling sound so cover your ears if you’re close. At various points along the route the procession stops, there is music and dancing, then it continues on. Stop to watch the calenda as it passes by, or follow along and join in the party.
Tourists and locals alike assemble in the Guelaguetza auditorium for a folk dance festival that takes place every year on two consecutive Mondays in July. High on a hill, the auditorium overlooks the city of Oaxaca and offers incredible views that you can enjoy simultaneously with the performances taking place on stage.
A brass band sets the rhythm for swirling skirts, stomping huaraches (sandals), and waving straw hats. In one of the dances the men play the role of bullfighters, waving their bandanas as their partners, pretending to be bulls, try to knock the men down (often succeeding, to the delight of the audience). In another dance, the male partner vies for a kiss as the woman flirtatiously tries to avoid it. In the pineapple dance, performed only by women, the dancers gracefully enter onto the stage wearing beautifully embroidered huipiles (blouses) of myriad colors, sporting long ribbons in their braided hair, each of them carrying a pineapple on her shoulder. Men perform the final dance, known as the feather dance. Wearing huge fan-shaped headdresses, they leap several feet into the air, impressing the spectators with their intricate footwork and the strength required to hoist their heavy headdresses.
At the conclusion of each performance, the dancers throw items to the crowd: gifts of fruit, small handicrafts or other products from their region.
The Guelaguetza presents a visual journey around the state of Oaxaca to enjoy the dances and gifts offered by each of the state's ethnic groups. Guelaguetza is a Zapotec word that means reciprocal sharing. The Guelaguetza festival celebrates the interdependence between the numerous ethnic groups of Oaxaca state as delegations from the various groups perform their traditional dances wearing the costumes from their region.
In addition to the Guelaguetza dance performances in the auditorium, a host of other events are held concurrently in and around Oaxaca city. The delegations that perform in the Guelaguetza dances take part in calendas on the two Sundays prior to the Guelaguetza. A mezcal fair in one of the city's many parks, temporary street markets selling folk art, as well as concerts and shows of all types, provide ample entertainment to the many visitors who arrive in Oaxaca to take part in this spectacular fiesta.
Day of the Dead
A trail outlined with marigold petals marks the path the spirits follow to an altar laden with flowers, candles, food and libations set out for them. The combined aromas of crushed marigolds, spicy mole, hot chocolate and copal incense fill the air. The alluring fragrance is intended to draw the spirits to the offering their family has prepared.
This is Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. Altars are set up all through the city: in homes, schools, businesses, cemeteries and in the street. The cemeteries are bursting with color as graves are festooned in flowers. Markets are bustling as people make the essential purchases to be able to properly welcome the visitors who will arrive; family and friends will come to visit the spirits of the deceased in each home. Elaborate sand tapestries decorate public spaces with three-dimensional scenes of skeletons and other themes relating to death. These will be blown away by the wind, or swept up in a matter of days—a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life.
The customs surrounding Day of the Dead stretch back to ancient times. With the arrival of the Spaniards, the practices and beliefs changed and adapted. Today's celebration of Day of the Dead holds some of both pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions, based on the belief that the deceased continue to exist following death and return each year to visit their families. The altars and tomb decorations are designed to assist the spirits in finding their way home and to welcome them so that their family members may spend some time in their company. Not just one day, but several days of festivities and solemn observances, October 31st through November 2nd are the official dates, but related events take place both before and after.
For weeks before, market stalls prepare by stocking the Day of the Dead necessities: candles, chocolate, miniature skulls, skeletons and coffins made of various materials (wood, paper mache, clay, or sugar). Some families may purchase a live turkey a few weeks prior to the occasion to fatten it up for the big day when it will be served with the traditional black mole sauce to the dead and living alike. Pesos are tucked away in advance for the last-minute expenses: flowers to decorate the altar and tombs, fruit and the special bread called pan de muerto for the offering.
Wander around the cemeteries at night and you’ll see candles around and on the graves, which are also adorned with flowers, ornaments and tapestries made of sand. Family members sit by the gravesides, some solemn, others cheerful, they set aside this time to honor their deceased family members. You might bring some flowers and candles to decorate one of the unattended tombs and partake in the custom.
Noche de Rabanos
You probably never expected to see architectural wonders, cultural gatherings, mythical creatures and historical moments all reproduced in miniature using a root vegetable as the main building material. That's just a sampling of what Oaxaca's yearly radish festival has to offer.
The custom originated in the 1800s when vendors in Oaxaca's markets started creating more and more elaborate displays with produce in order to attract clients. Eventually, the custom became a competition that was formalized as the Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes) festival that takes place every December 23rd, when local craftspeople create intricate scenes out of carved and assembled radishes.
Craftspeople set up their displays on tables lining Oaxaca's main square, the zocalo. The largest section is devoted to radishes, but there are also sections set aside for scenes made of flor inmortal (dried flowers), and totomoxtle (corn husks). Go in the afternoon to see them setting up and get a good long look at the elaborate process; when you return in the evening there will be long lineups to admire the finished pieces.
The creativity and ingenuity of Oaxacan craftspeople is evident year-round in the finely crafted folk art and handicrafts they produce, but this event proves, without a doubt, that their skills are extremely versatile. A unique precursor of Christmas, Noche de Rabanos is just one of the many colorful, grandiose celebrations in Oaxaca that enliven the life of its residents and visitors.