December 12th celebrates Dia de Guadalupe, a legendary event that bonded the people of Mexico, and much of the native New World peoples and the Catholic Church in the days of the Spanish conquest.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is the most famous and celebrated of all saints and she is also known as the “Virgen Morena” and is the patron saint of Mexico. Supposedly she was first encountered by an Aztec Indian, San (saint). Juan Diego (de) Cuauhtlatoatzin, a native of Mexico, and the first Roman Catholic indigenous saint from the Americas, on the hill of Tepeyac today, within the sprawling metropolis of as modern day Mexico City, in 1531.
As the story goes he was on his way to a monastery and when passing the hill of Tepeyac he heard signing as the sky turned brilliant and at the end of the singing he heard a call from a woman. As he knelt before her she identified herself as the “consummate virgin Saint Mary, mother of the true deity , God, the giver of Life, the creator of all, the ever-present lord of heaven and earth”. Then she then asked for a temple to be built on the so that she could attend to the “weeping, sorrows and prayers” of all the people of the land.
Diego told his story to the Archbishop of Mexico City, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the "lady" for a miraculous sign to prove her identity, a rather bold and doubtful move by the clergy. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Juan Diego found Castilian roses on the normally barren hilltop. The Virgin arranged these in his peasant cloak or tilma. When Juan Diego opened his cloak before Bishop Zumárraga on December 12, 1531, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The apparition of the Virgen Morena was an important bridge between the existing native religions and the conquering Catholic Church. In the years following Cortez's subjugation of the Aztec Empire in 1521 the victorious Spanish rampaged through the executing native shaman that refused to convert to the new region and by destroying idols, religious structures and burning all written evidence of the preexisting cultures and religions, simply because they could not read the documents and thusly must these tomes must have been written by Satan. Their intent was to eradicate the old practices and convert/save the native population to Christianity. (a violent parallel not lost on the news watchers of today) But after 8 years the Spanish found the native religions were not so primitive as to believed the gods we in these monuments and statues, but in the world around them and just as real to the native peoples as Mother Mary and the Christ child were to the Christians. The destruction of their temples and murder of their believers had done little to end old practices which had just gone underground. The Spanish needed another tact to win the 'hearts and minds' of the New World population.
In 1529 a thirty-year-old Franciscan Friar came to Mexico by the name of Bernardino de Rivera who, on his ordination became Bernardino de Sahagún. Bernardino was a studied Renaissance humanist and may have been sent to the New World specifically to find out why "force" was not working in instilling Christianity in the native peoples. He spent the next 50 years studying the native cultures of Mesoamerica and his collections in the "Florentine Codex" are almost the only, and certainly the most complete almost contemporary cataloging of the native cultures and religions in the region to survive the period. His life's works have earned him the unofficial title of "the first anthropologist."
But the suspicious coincidences begin to arise in that two years after Bernardino arrival in Mexico. In the Spring of 1531 he sent is initial communications back to Spain, the contents of that communication are lost to time, but his likely reply would have come in the late Fall of 1531. In late fall of that same year Juan Diego had his first encounter with the Virgin on the hillside and on December 12 the Bishop of Mexico recognized the event as a miracle.
It will likely never be known whether Bernardino was orchestrator or publicist for the apparition, but his later writings reflect the "kinder and gentler Church" which then turned toward the Northern European conversion model of respecting, merging and eventually drowning out old practices. (how Christmas ended up in December for example)
It follows interestingly that Juan Diego was of native Indian descent described as being a "Nahua" a broad name for the peoples that settled much of central and southern Mexico as well as El Salvador and Nahuatl and its many dialects were considered the language of trade at the height of the Aztec empire. Although he was from a region likely to have been more aptly described as "Aztec" there was no desire within the Church to associate Juan Diego with the recently vanquished Aztecs, who were also not that popular with the surrounding peoples they had subjugated and who had helped Cortez against the Aztecs.
Some theorists point to the image itself of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a merging of the native Mother Earth goddess "Tonantzin" (also Nonantzin) which literal translation means "Our Sacred Mother" which would be applicable to both the Virgin Mary and the previous Earth Goddess. Promoters of this theory point to the flaming aura on both the apparition and in some pre-Columbian goddess statues of Tonantzin and in the feathered headdresses indicating power worn by native priests and rulers of the time. But there are at least an equal number of representations of Tonantzin that bear no likeness at all to the representation of the Virgen Morena.
Whether Juan Diego's Virgin encounter was a covert event or just a well-timed one the Church successfully exploited will never be know, but it worked. It gave the native peoples of the region a commonality, and a believability with the Christian Church, if not a direct edict to the people that the new religion was the true faith.
In 1737 The Virgen of Guadalupe was recognized as the patron Saint of Mexico City and eventually by 1946 to include all of the Americas. This day is to celebrate the love given to the Virgin de Guadalupe and is known to many as the day of Love (Amor). Since the first days of the Feast of the Virgin de Guadalupe, it has been a major day of fundraising and tithing for the Church that continues to this day.
In 2002 Juan Diego was canonized, but in the same year a scientific study, permitted by the Church, cast doubt on the origins of the now iconic relic. Evidence of paints not of the period, significant retouching and the fact that the fabric had been unevenly primed in a non-miracle fashion, much as any other painting of that period.
The original "tilma" of Saint Juan Diego hangs above the altar of the Guadalupe Basilica, Mexico City. It is protected by bulletproof glass and low-oxygen atmosphere.
Dia de Guadalupe also marks the traditional beginning of the Christmas Posadas and holiday season all over Mexico and Latin America, although commercial Christmas has advanced the starting date in Mexico to the days following Day of the Dead, much like the United States.