December is a wonderful time to visit Oaxaca: The city feels like a month-long celebration. Oaxaca’s cathedral square, the zocalo, is decked in Christmas lights and poinsettias, which are native to this region. A special Christmas artisans’ market springs up on the main pedestrian street, the Alcala. Local parks sprout carnivals full of games and rides for kids. Homes and businesses set out elaborate creche scenes, processions fill the streets at night, and the whole city feels festive.
In the runup to Christmas, Oaxaca celebrates several other special days. We were there for two of the most colorful: the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, on December 12, and the festival of the Virgin of Solitude (Soledad), patron saint of Oaxaca, on December 18.
On the Virgin of Guadalupe’s day, parents dress up their children in traditional “peasant” clothes, line up at church for the kids to receive a special blessing from the priest, and then take pictures of them atop real (or stuffed) ponies or mules in front of a backdrop of the Virgin of Guadalupe. All to commemorate the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego, a humble farmer, in 1531 near what is now Mexico City. We cracked up seeing the little mustaches that some parents had drawn on their infant Juans.
For the festival of the Virgin of Soledad, much of Oaxaca gathers at the city’s stunning 17th-century Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude. Inside the church, worshipers crowd to pay tribute to a beloved statue of the Virgin, shown mourning the death of her son. In a corner of the plaza outside the church, a second, possibly older statue draws long lines of devout people, waiting quietly to leave a flower and say a prayer next to Mary.
The rest of the basilica’s plaza is given over to a riot of color as masked dancers in multicolored satin costumes perform intricate group dances, including weaving ribbons around a pole. Several other masked figures—dressed as a devil or as a dark-skinned woman with a big head—move around outside the circle of dancers, interacting with spectators, borrowing babies to carry. It felt like they were acting out some traditional story that we didn’t understand.
In between those festival days, as we strolled around the city in the evening, we kept stumbling on religious processions. They weren’t the solemn, penitential processions you see in parts of the Spanish-speaking world during Lent or Easter Week. Instead, they were colorful, joyful parades, with brass bands playing upbeat music, marchers waving banners or spinning balloon-like balls on long poles, and couples in traditional folk outfits dancing in the streets. Our 3-year-old companion, Francesca, was entranced by the female dancers with their long ribboned braids and wide twirling skirts.
In the village of Teotitlan del Valle near Oaxaca, where we stayed for a few days, we learned about another December tradition: posadas. During the nine nights leading up to Christmas, small statues of Mary and Joseph are carried to a different house each night, accompanied by musicians and a crowd of singing neighbors. They ask shelter for the statues, reenacting Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. When the residents of the house say “yes,” everyone goes inside for a party, complete with tamales, hot chocolate, and star-shaped pinatas for the kids to break. On Christmas morning, a statue of the baby Jesus joins the posada, and the trio is placed in a manger scene at the neighborhood church.