Dia de Virgen de Guadalupe

The fireworks explode in rapturous thunder against the silence of the morning sky. The sun has not yet risen, but that doesn’t stop the pilgrims who have made their way from around Chiapas and the rest of Mexico from descending upon the Iglesia de Guadalupe in San Cristobal de las Casas, singing, chanting, and lighting off fireworks along the way. It’s December 12th, Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, and the party is just beginning.

A pilgrim walks through the deserted streets in the predawn hours, San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

The Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe is one of the most important religious festivals in Latin America. Legend has it, the Virgin Mary appeared before a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego four times between December 9th and 12th, 1531, and asked for a church to be built on Tepeyac Hill outside of Mexico City in her honour. After numerous visits to the skeptical Archbishop, it took the presence of non-native Castilian Roses at the top of the hill and the appearance of the Virgin Mary on Juan Diego’s tilma, or cloak, as he brought the bright flowers to the Archbishop for the Archbishop to finally be convinced to build the church. At the same time, Juan Diego’s sick uncle, who fell ill on December 11th and was close to death, also beared witness the Virgin Mary. She healed him of his illness, and instructed him that she wished to be known as Santa Maria, de Guadalupe.

An image depicting the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego

The significance of this event was not lost on the population of Central America at that time. The Virgin Mary appeared as a darker skinned woman, similar to themselves, and spoke to Juan Diego in his native Nahuatl tongue. Over the next few decades millions of predominantly indigenous Mexicans would convert to Catholicism. To this day, the Lady of Guadalupe is an important religious and political symbol, uniting Mexicans of all cultural backgrounds.

Pilgrims walking through the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world, receiving approximately 20 million visitors annually. For those who can’t make the pilgrimage to Mexico City every year, a number of other churches dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe exist, including the Iglesia de Guadalupe in San Cristobal de las Casas.

Pilgrims and visitors flock to the steps in front of Iglesia de Guadalupe, San Cristobal de las Casas

Perched on a hill to the east of San Cristobal de las Casas, the church is visible from just about anywhere in town. 79 steps lead from Real de Guadalupe, the main pedestrian plaza in San Cristobal, to the church doors. Panoramic views of the city surround the plaza in front of the church. It is here that the thousands of pilgrims, tourists, and locals gather on December 12th, eating, drinking, and celebrating the Lady of Guadalupe.

Day and night for four days, the party continues. Food vendors line Real de Guadalupe, feeding hungry festival goers and filling the air with the scent of tacos, churros, elotes, and other delicious edibles. Carnival games and rides are set up for the young to enjoy. Fireworks explode day and night, combining with the pulsating sound of music and chanting from the pilgrims.

The highlight is witnessing the men, women and children from nearby communities make their way down Real de Guadalupe to the church. They carry torches, flags, signs, and images of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their faces are blackened with the smoke from the torches, and dirty from the sweat of travelling many kilometres by foot, bicycle, and caravan to arrive at the church. Whether walking or running, the exhaustion is present in their expressions, however their energy never dies, and their chants and songs carry them onwards as they tackle the final hurdle, the long staircase that leads to the church. Eventually, the pilgrims return to their communities, the fireworks fade away, and the streets return to normal, as another years festivities conclude.