The first week of January is a great time to arrive in a Latin American country. Us “gringos” found this out upon our arrival in Mérida, learning that “navidad,” or Christmas, is technically still celebrated until January 6, where “el dia de Los Reyes” is celebrated. Since Mérida was founded with Catholic influence from Spain, it is no surprise that this holiday originates from the Catholic story of the Three Wise Men following the star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Baby Jesus. Although it historically has religious roots, this street celebration has been modified to a more informal, communal celebration with a religious force behind it comparable to Easter. Not being a religious person myself, I still felt comfortable joining the locals and partying in the streets.
For students studying abroad, understanding and experiencing holidays, or “días festivos,” is a fantastic introduction to the community you are about to live in and provides you with a great representation of their culture. Almost all holidays will have some history behind its meaning and significance (think about Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July), so it’s a great way to not only learn the culture, but also learn a bit of history as well.
The city of Mérida wasn’t only celebrating the end of the Christmas season, but also the foundation of the city. I got to learn about when the city was founded, (1542!) and visited buildings and churches that are as old as the city! One can also understand architecture and the style of the city better when they know their history: for Merida, their foundation year was when the Spaniards first arrived to Mexico and conquered the Mayans that were living there. Many of the buildings are beautiful and colonial-designed due to the Spanish influence. Religion and Catholicism was huge during that time in the Spanish social realm, so there are several monumental churches “en el centro,” the main downtown area of Merida.
Enough about the history, you’re probably wondering how the city celebrates this double-holiday. “Rosca de Reyes” is a traditional cake that is baked for this holiday that in every cake, there is a figurine hidden inside. If you have the figurine (who is supposed to represent Baby Jesus), then you are supposed to throw a party for all the people you celebrated the holiday with before the second of February. My roommate had the figurine in her cake that she ate from work, so I will be inviting myself to that party! 🙂 In the downtown area of Merida, they close down some of the main roads and have a huge party in the street. Hundreds of people swarm closed down streets to see and taste the biggest rosca de reyes in all of Mexico, stretching 1.5 kilometers, which in Gringo measurements, makes it about 4,821 feet long. It is HUGE. And yes, this cake is in the Guinness book of world records!!
Aside from getting a huge piece of cake and soda or hot chocolate for 25 pesos (less than 2 dollars), there is a huge dance party going on at the end of the huge cake, with a live band performing and signing nonstop for a few hours. It is quite a spectacle and very fun to be a part of. They invited a bunch of the ladies in the front dancing on stage, so I got to dance with the band!
I think its important to remember that events like these are not required parts of our excursions or the programs, so you must talk to locals or your host family in order to get the inside scoop of when these awesome cultural events go down.
Hop on Google or ask your local friend when the next holiday or fiesta is going down in the town you are studying abroad in. Make sure you go, bring a camera, and have an unforgettable time!