Most of the traditions of the Chapala and Ajijic area are celebrated around the Catholic Church holidays, which go back to when the Spaniards first came to Lakeside (the area on Lake Chapala generally between Chapala and Jocotepec and surrounding areas).
In the Ajijic area, the biggest and number one traditional fiesta is the nine days of festivities in honor of the patron saint, Saint Andrew. This is celebrated on the last nine days of November.
The unique thing about this fiesta is that each day is sponsored by a different group of workers or masons. One day will be sponsored by the mason gardeners and another day by the mason carpenters. The biggest day of the nine days festivities is the one sponsored by the Absent Sons of Ajijic who went to the United States and came back to Mexico or those who aren't able to come back, but send money.
If you were a member of one of the great masons who sponsored a day and it was your group's sponsored day, you sponsor one of the little local "oom-pah" bands that play a combination of Mexican and German-style music with a tuba. These oom-pah bands play "mañanitas," or the traditional happy birthday song to Saint Andrew in the courtyard of the church.
Every morning, the day starts with a group of 100 to 150 brick masons marching with their band, carrying thermoses with hot "canela" (cinnamon) tea that they mix with rum, brandy, or "rompope" (Mexican version of eggnog). While marching, they light up fireworks. This is repeated at 12 noon.
At six o'clock at night, everybody meets down at the Six Corners or “Seis Equinas” for a procession where there would be another band. The idea is to assemble at the Six Corners and march to the church to attend a special mass.
While marching, "cohetes" (rocket fireworks) are lighted up. They have two types of cohetes. One is the one that makes the big bang. The "cohetes de luces" is the one that sparkles. These cohetes can go up to 100 feet up in the air.
There is a whole entourage where they would have about 15 to 20 Indian dancers, priests, a band, and some religious figurines that they would be carrying.
The procession is beautiful to watch. Since it's always happening at dawn, some of the most fantastic pictures have been taken by people standing on the street looking up as the procession is coming down towards the church.
Everybody goes into the church. The band and Indian dancers go right up to the front of the church and they'll play a song for the Virgin Mary. At seven o'clock at night, everybody sits down to listen to a special mass for the sponsor group of workers and their families, for whom the homily is dedicated.
After the mass at eight o'clock at night, everybody goes to the plaza where the whole village is waiting and the biggest party is going on. There are different kinds of activities going on at the plaza. There would be free canela tea for everybody. Other bands play different styles of music that people dance to.
The culmination of the celebration is at 11:30 PM when they light up the "castillo" (castle fireworks). The bamboo castillo is assembled on a telephone post that's embedded in the middle of the street. This giant fireworks tower burns figures on four sides. It's a piece of artwork and is incredible how it's assembled. The castillo is lit in stages, sections fall out when burnt, and the display ends up with rockets going up, which makes the entire thing spin. The burning of the castillo can last up to 15 minutes.
After the castillo display, some people start to go home, but some stay at the plaza until 3 o'clock in the morning.
Nine-day festivities are what they call "novenario" (novena) and all of these traditions are started by the church, though many traditions adapt to the local Indian beliefs.
After this celebration, there's Christmas. Every day before Christmas, there's a reenactment of Jose and Maria looking for a place to stay for the night. This tradition is performed every night of the nine days before Christmas.
Our village is divided into "barrios" (neighborhoods) and each neighborhood is named after a saint such as Santiago, San Mateo, and San Gaspar. Each barrio has to reenact this tradition of Jose and Maria, followed by the pilgrims, and behind are up to 200 kids dressed up like mini pilgrims. The procession is beautiful.
This procession comes to a private home with a closed door. They then sing this special song about them asking permission to spend the night at that home. The door opens and out comes a group of sponsors who give a bag of candies to each one of the kids who participated.
We stopped being one of the sponsors two years ago, but we used to participate in this tradition since 1975. We would always prepare 300 bags of candies. After the kids come through, there would be 15 to 20 piñatas out in the street, half for the boys and half for the girls.
This all ends on Christmas Eve and baby Jesus being born. The church would have "living Nativity scenes" that would represent different countries around the world. There could be 20 to 30 countries represented like the Russian, American, Dutch, and Chinese. These scenes are acted by local kids.
On January 6th is The Three Kings' Day, which is a whole other celebration. On Three Kings' Day they bring out the "rosca" (King's Ring bread), which is like a strudel. In every home, one member of the family will share and break the bread and every member of the family will pick a slice. Embedded in this ring of bread is a little plastic doll.
If you're the lucky one who gets the slice of bread with the doll, then you have to sponsor a "tamales party” on the 12th of February, which is called "Día de la Candelaria" (Day of the Candles or Candle Mass). This phenomenal religious festivity is partnered with a "Pueblo de Pachanga" (party town), which is celebrated in most Mexican villages.
You would think that Latin America is a place where there's not a lot of money, but the locals would never change these traditions. There are local Catholic priests who will try to modify and change things and say, "Why do you have to blow up so much fireworks? That costs a lot of money. It is better to spend that money to buy clothes for your children." The people will never change these traditions.
Tradition will dictate what you can and cannot do. For example, in the restaurant business, one old wives' tale states that a girl who's working in the laundry room and doing some ironing cannot be asked to work immediately afterwards and be allowed to rest at least an hour so that her hands can cool down. There are tons of customs and traditions that you just need to abide by.
These are things that we don't do back home in the United States and Canada where you feel a sense of belongingness to the village. In Mexico, the locals love it when they see an expat or gringo going up and participating. For example, the festivities in honor of San Andres, if you feel an affinity with a certain work group, then you can go and participate financially. Mexicans are always inclusive.
There is also the carnival, which is a whole week of festivities before the 40 days of Lent. This is the last opportunity for people to howl, dance, drink, and do whatever they want to do before the 40 days of Lent. Then there is Holy Thursday, Holy Friday, Glorious Saturday, and Easter Sunday. The festivities are nonstop and you definitely feel the sense of repetition and tradition.
(Castle fireworks or castillo cohetes, Mexico, pictured. )