December 12 is one of Mexico’s most important religious holidays. It is estimated that a million or more Catholic Mexicans will visit the Basilica de Guadalupe, in north-eastern Mexico City, to pay homage to the country’s most revered religious icon: the Virgin Guadalupe (The Virgin Mary).
Some people begin walking to the Basilica – in some cases from towns and villages miles away – hours or days before the 12th. Many of the pilgrims crawl the last few hundred yards of the journey, from the gates of the basilica to the church itself, on their knees; a symbolic, painful experience. The pilgrims will arrive late on the eve of the day, or in the early hours of the morning, to ensure that they are at or near the shrine at sunrise.
The history which led up to this occasion goes back to the time of the Spanish conquest. When the Spaniards arrived, they found indigenous peoples with strong, deeply rooted belief systems of their own.
The story of Juan Diego, a young indigenous boy, takes place on December 12th, 1531. According to narratives, the Virgin Mary appeared to him when he was walking on a hill named Tepeyac. The apparition is described as a young woman with black hair and darkened skin, which is why the virgin Guadalupe is sometimes referred to as “la virgen morena” (the brown-skinned virgin).
The virgin told Juan Diego to go and tell the local Bishop to build a church on this hill, so Juan Diego did as he was told: however, the Bishop was left unconvinced by the story and gave the boy short shrift.
So the virgin appeared once more, and on the second occassion told Juan Diego to collect flowers from the top of the hill. Being December, Juan did not expect to find any but, upon his arrival there, he found the hill was covered with beautiful flowers. As instructed, he collected some flowers and, using his overcoat to carry them, returned to see the Bishop.
The Bishop, seeing the unseasonal flowers, also saw an image of the Virgin Guadalupe imprinted onto to the coat. Convinced it was a miracle, he ordered the building of the church on the hill of Tepeyac – at precisely the location where the current-day basilica resides in Mexico City.
Today, Catholic Mexicans bring gifts and offerings to the virgin, petitioning her for help and good providence; for example, when a family member is ill, when there is conflict in their life, or when they are to embark upon some personal or business venture.
For those who cannot make it to the basilica in the country’s capital, private vigils are held at homes and churches across the nation. Fire crackers are often let-off, filling the night sky with light and sound; celebrations also include fiestas with dancing and music in the virgin’s honor.
Juan Diego was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002, at which time the Pope said, “Christ’s message, through his Mother, took up the central elements of indigenous culture, purified them, and gave them a definitive sense of salvation … facilitating the fruitful meeting of two worlds and becoming the catalyst for a new Mexican identity”.
The Virgin Guadalupe is omnipresent in modern-day Mexican culture. Images of the virgin may be seen everywhere: at churches, at street shrines, in taxis and buses, in homes, stores, bus stations and airports; in people’s cars, in offices, and even tattoos. Nearly five hundred years later, the Virgin Guadalupe continues to be adored and revered as a guardian, minder and savior by millions of Catholic Mexicans.