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Bigger than Christmas

It generates days and nights of long, spirited parades, dancing, drumming, singing, praying and dining and live music.

It’s the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a holy day for Latin American – and particularly Mexican – Catholics that’s “bigger than Christmas,” says Msgr. Tom “Father Mac” McCormick.

In Rifle, Wednesday evening, hundreds of people gathered to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe. The celebration begins Dec. 9 and concludes Dec. 12, sometimes involving all-night services that begin in the wee hours and continue through the day.



At midnight Wednesday night at St. Mary of the Crown in Carbondale, about 300 people gathered for an Our Lady of Guadalupe service. Thursday afternoon, a parade went from Carbondale Middle School to St. Mary’s for a celebration expected to go into the night.

“Christmas is more of a personal family time,” said Father Mac. “But Our Lady of the Guadalupe is much more communal.”



The standing-room-only crowd filled Rifle’s St. Mary’s sanctuary at 8 p.m. only to file out the church’s doors a few minutes later into the cold night air. Once outside, the congregation followed a procession of 12 dancers, called “mataschi,” around the church parking lot.

Wearing red and orange tops, red bandanas and long skirts covered with metal beads that jangled, the mataschi shook castanets as they led the procession.

Two small boys carried a small banner of the Blessed Virgin, and ahead of them, men carried a sort of litter on their shoulders, bearing a larger image of the saint. For nearly a half hour, the mataschi danced to a giant bass drum beaten ceaselessly by a young woman, while onlookers watched, and a few small boys threw snowballs at each other.

The dance had a Native American feel to it – and for good reason. Our Lady of Guadalupe has been adored since December 1531, believers say, when an olive-skinned Virgin Mary appeared to an Aztec Indian farm laborer named Juan Diego.

Diego had converted to Catholicism a few years earlier and was on his way to Mass in Mexico City. The Blessed Virgin told Diego to tell the Spanish bishop about her, which he did, but the bishop did not believe him.

So on Dec. 12, the Virgin told Diego to go to the top of a frozen hill where he miraculously found roses growing amid the rocks. She arranged an armful of blooms in his cloak, which he took to the bishop, and when he opened his cloak, the Virgin’s image was imprinted on it. The discovery caused the bishop to believe Diego’s story.

What’s remarkable, explained Father Mac, is how many people converted to Catholicism after news of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s appearance got around.

“This took place in 1531,” he said, “There were only 60 to 70 Catholic priests in the land – because Mexico wasn’t even Mexico yet – but within 10 years, nine million indigenous people left their native faith for Catholicism. It caused all those people, whose faith was based on the adoration of the sun, to accept this Christian message. That’s phenomenal.”

For his role in triggering this phenomenon, Juan Diego was declared a saint this year – and his feast day is Dec. 9, the day on which the celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe now begins.

Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe symbolize many aspects of the Aztecs’ conversion to Catholicism – and of the Catholic faith.

The Blessed Virgin wears a belt, which in the 1500s would indicate a woman was pregnant.

“This shows she’s the mother of Jesus Christ,” Father Mac said. “She is seen as the way to Jesus.”

The beams of light behind the Virgin are the sun.

“She is standing in front of the sun,” Father Mac explained. “This shows the Aztecs’ adoration of the sun is being replaced by Lady Guadalupe.”

The Blessed Virgin stands on a cloak – Juan Diego’s – and a quarter moon, again showing her domination over the Aztecs’ faith based on nature.

The name the Blessed Virgin gave herself, Lady Guadalupe, is translated from Nahuatl, the Aztecs’ language.

“She spoke to Juan Diego in his native language,” said Father Mac.

And Lady Guadalupe has a dark complexion. Father Mac said her complexion symbolizes the Aztec Indians, i.e. Native Americans, but her features are European.

“This symbolizes the Spanish conquistadors who had invaded the Native Americans’ land,” he said. “It shows the two people coming together.”

Father Mac said Lady Guadalupe still works as “a perfect icon” for today.

“The whole point of the celebration is the bringing together of two cultures,” he said.

Even though in places like San Antonio and Southern California, Dec. 12 is a huge day of celebrating, few Anglos attend Lady Guadalupe events locally. Father Mac said sometimes it’s just a question of logistics.

“We used to offer a bilingual service in both English and Spanish at St. Mary’s in Rifle,” he said. “But the service is already so crowded with Spanish speakers we can’t fit any more people in the church. It’s a sacrifice we make to just have a Spanish Mass.”

Msgr. Tom “Father Tom” Bradtke of Carbondale’s St. Mary’s said the tide is slowing turning. As more and more people learn of Our Lady of Guadalupe, more integration can take place.

“The pope canonized Lady Guadalupe as the patron of the Americas,” said Father Tom. “That’s all of the Americas, from the top of Canada to the tip of Argentina. But it hasn’t been a real big thing with Anglos. And this year, the pope canonized Juan Diego. But Because Juan Diego’s vision took place near Mexico City, this is mainly a Mexican observance.”

Still, Father Mac has his own vision for the future.

“My goal is that we can celebrate the real instead of the ideal,” he said of the holy day’s emphasis on bringing people of different cultures together. “No one is superior, no one is inferior. I think of it as becoming bi-cognitive.”


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