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Spanish-Mexican Festivals, 1598-1846
Spanish-Mexican Festivals, 1598-1846
Many of the Spanish festivals and celebrations were brought over from Spain, some of them stemming from medieval times or even the period when Islamic Moors controlled Spain. Other festivals were related to the cycles of the year and the Catholic calendar.

The traditional holy days of the Nativity were for religious observance. Another traditional holiday was Semana Santa, or Holy Week. The earliest brotherhoods of penitentes, known to practice self-mortification during Holy Week, came to New Mexico with the Oñate expedition of 1598.

The feast day of the Virgin Mary took place in September. In 1540, when the expedition of Captain Hernando de Alvarado reached present-day Albuquerque, they initially named the Río Grande the Río Nuestra Señora, because they came upon it on the Feast Day of Our Lady.

Pueblo Indians adopted many Iberian traditions and celebrations, which survive to this day in both Hispanic and Native communities. Two such examples are the dances of the Matachines and the festival of Moros y Cristianos.

The origins of the earliest Matachines dances are obscure. They are believed to be a part of a family of dances known as the Moriscas, or Moorish dances. The Matachines as we know them today in New Mexico were originally introduced into Mexico by the Jesuits to show Christian triumph over Native paganism. In the dance a young girl, referred to as La Malinche (the mistress of Hernán Cortéz), shows the way to Christianity through her goodness and innocence. Today the dance is performed by Hispanics in at least six New Mexico villages, many Pueblo tribes, and the Rarámuri Indians of Mexico.

The ceremony of Moros y Cristianos is actually a playful reenactment of the battles between Catholic Spaniards and the Moors who had occupied Spain for 800 years. The first reenactment took place during the late summer or early autumn of 1598 in San Juan. There was singing, dancing, jousting, and gaming. During the mock battle some men dressed as Christians, on foot and carried arquebuses, and others as Moors, who were mounted on horseback with lances and shields. There has been a Moros y Cristianos celebration ever since.

The Spanish also brought over the tradition of the bull runs, adopted by the Pecos Indians. Their descendants partake in bull runs every year in Jemez.

Another early celebration is now often referred to as “The First Thanksgiving.” This was not Thanksgiving Day as we know it but a special feast and celebration that took place when the colonists finished the first leg of their long journey northward, reaching El Paso del Norte (now the Juarez-El Paso area.) The colonists were so relieved to finally reach the banks of the Río Grande that they decided to have a great feast to give thanks for surviving the long hard journey.

Festivals and celebrations were likely unchanged through the Mexican Era, from 1821 through most of 1846.

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