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Is Cinco de Mayo a religious holiday?

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 05/05/22

It’s only natural to wonder if an important holiday in a traditionally Catholic country might be religious in origin.

The liturgical calendar is full of feast days, and many Catholic countries follow suit and have elaborate cultural traditions based around Catholic holidays. So it’s only natural to wonder if an important holiday in a traditionally Catholic country might be religious in origin. 

I won’t keep you hanging: No, Cinco de Mayo is not a religious holiday. But what’s even more interesting is that it’s not a Mexican national holiday at all.

Americans commonly think Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s independence day, but the country’s actual independence day is September 16.

On September 16, my Mexican friends have all kinds of joyous festivities: parties, fireworks, bonfires, cookouts. My kids love to count the Mexican flags we see flying from the roofs of cars in our predominantly Mexican neighborhood.

But on Cinco de Mayo, many Mexican-Americans don’t do anything special. In fact, one friend told me she was surprised when she moved to the U.S. as an adult and learned about the Cinco de Mayo celebrations. The holiday is a much bigger deal here than in many parts of Mexico!

In many parts, but not in all parts. May 5 is an important holiday in a region of Mexico called Puebla, and the Battle of Puebla is what Cinco de Mayo celebrates.

On May 5, 1862, the Mexican army won an extraordinary underdog victory against the French Empire. They were outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 and had inferior weapons, so their improbable victory took on larger-than-life meaning. 

The Battle of Puebla didn’t end the war: The Mexican army didn’t drive out the French for another five years. But the victory at Puebla became a triumphant symbol of Mexican resistance to foreign domination. 

Today, May 5 is still celebrated in Puebla and its neighboring region Veracruz. But for most Mexicans, May 5 is “a day like any other: It is not a federal holiday, so offices, banks and stores remain open.”

Still worth celebrating

So why do Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo when so many Mexicans don’t? Well, partly because the holiday has come to symbolize determination against overwhelming odds. It brings hope that we can all triumph over our personal adversaries.

And it’s a joy to have a day focused on enjoying and learning about Mexico. Especially as America and the Catholic Church become increasingly Hispanic, it makes so much sense to set aside a day for honoring and celebrating our neighbors to the south.

There are so many ways you might celebrate today. Here’s a handful of ideas to get you started…

  • Listen to mariachi music
  • Cook Mexican food. Go beyond tacos to try mole and enchiladas. Yum! 
  • Share the real story of Cinco de Mayo 
  • Support your local Mexican restaurant and go out to eat or order in delicious food  
  • Learn a little more about Mexico’s history
  • Practice a few new phrases or words in Spanish

However you do it, enjoy celebrating the amazing land of Mexico!

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