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Ancient Aztec Festivals, Celebrations and Holidays

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Haunty is a history buff who enjoys reading and writing about ancient history and cultures from around the world.

A Mexican conchero dancer.

A Mexican conchero dancer.

Traditional festivals were an important part of everyday life for the Aztecs. This article contains a list of the most significant ancient Aztec festivals, holidays and celebrations, including:

  • Rain Festivals
  • The Cuauhtemoc Festival
  • The New Fire Ceremony
  • The Quecholli Festival
  • The Chichen Itza Festival
  • The Xipe Totec Festival
  • The Festival of Xilonen

How the Aztecs Celebrated Rain Festivals

The Aztec Rain Festival is celebrated three times a year. Much of Mexico was under Aztec rulership for about 100 years, up until the time when the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez and his soldiers invaded the territory in 1521. Cortez and his men observed various festivals held in honour of the god of rain and lightning, Tlaloc.

The Aztecs celebrated the first rain festival at the beginning of the agricultural year in February, during the course of which a priest or shaman carried out a number of rituals to encourage rainfall.

The second rain festival was offered to Tlaloc and the other rain gods in March once flowers had begun to bloom, as this signified the arrival of the first new life from the earth.

A third Aztec rain festival was celebrated in autumn in order to encourage rainfall. At this festival, the Aztec people created shapes of small mountains and images of the god, Tlaloc, as he was thought to live on a high mountain.

As modern folklore has it, it poured with rain during the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968 because some students had created a statue of Tlaloc and sat on its top. Legend has it that Tlaloc did not quite approve of this, and as a result, the sky came down during the Olympic Games.

Aztecs Paid Homage to Their Emperor Cuauhtemoc in a Festival

The Cuauhtemoc Festival is celebrated in August. Cuauhtemoc was the last emperor of the Aztecs, whose memory is honoured every year during a celebration held in front of his statue on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.

At this festival, the story of his life is told both in native Indian languages and in Spanish, detailing the struggle against the Spaniards while Conchero dancers perform their world-famous dances, wearing feathered headdresses trimmed with mirrors and beads.

They carry with them images of Jesus Christ and saints to represent the blending of Aztec and Spanish cultures. Most of these Conchero groups consist of 50 or more dancers, each performing in their own rhythm and to their own accompaniment. The tempo rises gradually until it reaches a sudden climax, which is followed by a moment of silence.

Mexican poet Octavio Paz claims that the Spaniards' invasion of Mexico brought about an era in which the Aztec culture was almost entirely forgotten or forsaken. As Paz wrote, the Emperor Cuauhtemoc is honoured for his "bold and intimate acceptance of death".

Aztec New Fire Ceremony

Aztec New Fire Ceremony

The New Fire Ceremony Occurred Once Every 52 Years

The Aztec calendar divided the year into 18 months of 20 days each, plus a five-day "unlucky" period. The Aztecs also observed a ritualistic period of 260 days, made up of 13 months with 20 named days in each. When one cycle was superimposed on the other, a "century" of 52 years resulted.

At the end of each of these 52-year cycles, the Aztecs were scared that the world would come to an end, therefore the most impressive and important of all festivals was held during these periods. Widely known as the New Fire Ceremony, this Aztec festival involved putting out of the old altar fire in order to light a new one, as a symbol of the new cycle of life, or the dawning of the new era.

On the day of the New Fire Ceremony, all the fires in the Valley of Mexico were extinguished before sundown. Great masses of Aztec people journeyed from out of Mexico City to a temple several miles away on the Hill of the Star, following the lead of their priests or shamans. On this hill the priests lingered, waiting for a celestial sign, as the firmament of the stars could be observed quite well from this spot. The sign would signify whether the world would end or whether a new cycle would begin.

The marrow of this ritual was actualized when the constellation known as the Pleiades passed the zenith, enabling life to go on as it had. Had it failed to do so, the sun, the stars and other celestial bodies would turn into ferocious beasts who would descend to the earth and devour all the Aztecs. Then an earthquake would finish the destruction.

Each year, once a favorable interpretation of the celestial signal was made, burning torch-lights were carried by runners all through the valley to rekindle the fires in each house.

Aztec Hunters at the Quecholli Festival

Aztec Hunters at the Quecholli Festival

How the Quecholli Festival Is Celebrated

The Quecholli Festival is celebrated on the 280th day of the Aztec year, at the end of 14th month. Mixcoatl, also known as the Cloud Serpent, was the Aztec deity of the chase, possessing the features of a deer or rabbit. He was also associated with the morning star. One of the four creators of the world, he created fire from sticks, enabling the creation of humans.

The Quecholli Aztec festival honoured him by way of a ceremonial hunt. Quecholli was celebrated at the end of the 14th month, the same day on which the weapons were made.

Chichen Itza Equinox

Celebrating the Vernal Equinox at the Chichen Itza Festival

The Vernal Equinox occurs every year on the 21st of March. Chichen Itza, one of Mexico’s most famous and best preserved Mayan ruins, is situated on the Yucatan Peninsula. In each year, on the Vernal Equinox, a beam of sunlight hits the great El Castillo pyramid, bringing to life a shadowy form that creates the illusion that a huge serpent is slithering down its side.

The Aztecs held that this serpent was the feathered snake god, Quetzalcoatl, also known as Kukulcan to the Mayas. Since the time of the discovery of the annual awakening of the serpent god some 45 years ago, tourists from around the world have gathered at the site on the 21st of March. Not many are familiar with the fact that the snake can be observed four days before and after the equinox.

Tourists, waiting impatiently for the moment when the serpent becomes visible, can spend the time enjoying the performances of folk dancers, musicians, and poets. When midday finally hits, the shadowy form of the serpent slides into view.

Although Quetzalcoatl can also be observed at the Autumnal Equinox in September, there is a fairly real chance cloudy weather might get in the way of enjoying the effect since it occurs during the rainy season.

The Aztecs Celebrated the War God Xipe Totec

This festival is celebrated in March. Xipe Totec was a war-god of the Aztecs, often called "Our Lord the Flayed One". Statues and images of Xipe Totec depict a god wearing human skin. The festival held in his honour, known as Tlacaxipehualiztli, is held in March.

Aztec warriors took the festival of Xipe Totec for an excellent opportunity to mimic the god himself. Slaughtering their prisoners of war, they would cut their hearts out, remove their skins and wear them for the entire 20-day month. They would then fight mock battles, after which they would dispose of the rotting skins in caves or holes in the ground.

Modern scholars have read a little too much into this practice which they saw as an agricultural metaphor—they interpreted the wearing of human skin as a symbolic representation of the process by which a seed grows inside a rotting hull before popping its head as a fresh shoot. More recent archaeological evidence discredits any connection between the Aztec festival of Xipe Totec and Aztec agricultural knowledge.

Aztec Slave Girl Dressed Up As Xilonen

Aztec Slave Girl Dressed Up As Xilonen

Festival of Xilonen Celebration

Celebrated for eight days, starting on the 22nd of June.

The ancient Aztec festival of Xilonen was celebrated in honour of the goddess of maize. Much like other gods, Xilonen, also known as Chicomecoatl, demanded human sacrifice during her ceremonies to keep her interests in favor of the people.

Every night, unmarried girls wearing their hair long and loose—which represented their unmarried status—carried young green corn in offering to the goddess in a procession to her temple. A slave girl was picked to represent the goddess and dressed up to resemble her. On the last night, she was sacrificed in a ceremony.

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