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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.

What Holidays Did the Aztecs Celebrate?

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 New Fire Ceremony
  • The Quecholli 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. This festival was called Atlcahualo, which means 'the ceasing of water'. Human sacrifice was a part of the festival as children were taken to sacred mountaintops to be sacrificed to Tlaloc. The children, who were usually slaves or the second-born of nobles, would have their hearts removed. Tears were viewed as a sign that rain would come. If a child did not cry on the way to the shrine, they would have their fingernails removed to get them to cry.

The second rain festival occurred in March. It was called Tozoztontli, which means 'small perforation'. There would be more child sacrifices, and offerings would take place in caves. Flayed skin would be collected to be worn by priests.

The third rain festival was celebrated in December. It was called Atemoztli, which means 'descent of the water'. Statues of Tlaloc would be made of amaranth dough, and they would be worshipped. Their chests would be opened to mimic human sacrifices, and the figures would be cut up and eaten. Banquets would be held on the final day of the festival.

As modern folklore has it, it poured with rain during the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968. 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.

The New Fire Ceremony.

The New Fire Ceremony.

The New Fire Ceremony Occurred Once Every 52 Years

The Aztec calendar, xiuhpohualli, which means 'counting of the years', divided the year into 18 months of 20 days each. This calendar also has a five-day period called nemontemi, which means 'nameless days'. This was a period where the Aztecs did nothing of any significance; they simply waited for the next calendar.

The Aztecs also observed another calendar called tonalpohualli, which means 'counting of the day'. This calendar has 260 days divided into 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 this period. Widely known as the New Fire Ceremony, this festival involved human sacrifice to appease the gods for the renewal of the sun.

Preparations for the New Fire Ceremony started during nemontemi. The Aztecs would fast, go through a ritual cleansing, stop working and destroy old possessions. On the day of the New Fire Ceremony, all the fires were extinguished at sunset. The priests would walk to a mountain called Huixachtlan. At the top of this mountain, a human sacrifice would be made. A fire would be started on a man's chest. Once the fire was lit, their chest would opened and their heart would be used to fuel the fire. A bonfire would also be started. Runners would carry torches from this bonfire to light the hearths in the temples. These fires were eventually distributed to homes. The Aztecs would celebrate by cutting their ears and throwing their blood into the fires.

Aztec hunters at the Quecholli festival.

Aztec hunters at the Quecholli festival.

How the Quecholli Festival Was Celebrated

The Quecholli festival was celebrated at the end of the 14th month. The festival was dedicated to Mixcoatl, the Aztec deity of the hunt. Their name translated to 'Cloud Serpent', which was how the Aztecs described the Milky Way.

The Quecholli festival honoured him by way of a ceremonial hunt. Men would dress as the god and set ceremonial fires. A man and woman would also be sacrificed in the temple of Mixcoatl.

How the Aztecs Celebrated the God Xipe Totec

Xipe Totec was a god of agriculture. His name translates to 'Our Lord the Flayed One'. The festival held in his honour was called Tlacaxipehualiztli, which meant 'flaying of men'. This celebration occurred 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 by burying them in Xipe Totec's temple. This ritual could be connected with the idea of renewal of life. The flaying of skin could be symbolic of a snake shedding its own skin.

A girl dressed up as Xilonen.

A girl dressed up as Xilonen.

Festival of Xilonen

The festival for Xilonen, also known as Chicomecoatl, would occur during Huey Tecuilhuitl ('Greater Feast for the Revered Ones'). This would be around the end of June.

This festival was celebrated in honour of the goddess of maize. Much like other gods, Xilonen demanded human sacrifice during her ceremonies to keep her interests in favor of the people.

The person sacrificed would be a young girl that would personify Xilonen. Her blood would be collected and poured over a figure of the deity.

The Cuauhtemoc Festival

While this is not an event the Aztecs celebrated, it is an event worth mentioning. The Cuauhtemoc Festival is a contemporary celebration that occurs in August. This is an event that celebrates Aztec history and culture. It is named after Cuauhtemoc, the last emperor of the Aztecs. His 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 indigenous languages and in Spanish. The stories tell of the struggles against the Spaniards while Conchero dancers perform their world-famous dances while 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 Spanish invasion of Mexico brought about an era in which the Aztec culture was almost entirely forgotten or forsaken. As Paz wrote, Cuauhtemoc is honoured for his "bold and intimate acceptance of defeat".

Sources

Bernardino, de Sahagún (1953–82). Florentine Codex: General history of the things of New Spain.

Elson, Christina M.; Smith, Michael E. (July 2001). "Archaeological Deposits from the Aztec New Fire Ceremony". Ancient Mesoamerica.

Miller, Mary; Karl Taube (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion.

Read, Kay A. (May 1995). "Sun and Earth Rulers: What the Eyes Cannot See in Mesoamerica". History of Religions.

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