Cinco de Mayo is known the world over as a day meant for letting loose and partying, and it is perhaps the only holiday that holds a candle to St. Patrick's Day as the most spirited--and most spirituous--day of the year. On Cinco de Mayo, folks not just in Mexico but all around the world don sombreros and drink margaritas, and a jovial air of celebration is palpable at every Cinco de Mayo party, gathering, and workplace lunch at the local taco joint.
Cinco de Mayo: The Fun Facts
But what are we celebrating, exactly, as we day drink our Straw-Ber-Ritas? Although non-Mexicans often believe that Cinco de Mayo is either Mexico's Independence Day or a celebration of a Mexican victory over Spain in battle, it is neither! In 1861, President Benito Juarez's bankrupt government declared that it would suspend payments on its mounting foreign debt, so Spain, Britain, and France shipped their naval forces to Veracruz to demand payment with the military panache so typical of 19th Century imperialist powers. Spain and Britain quickly and peacefully negotiated with Mexico, but a très annoyed France, with its sights set on a new empire in the Americas, stormed Veracruz, overthrew Benito, and marched toward Mexico City.
At the time, the French army was considered the greatest in the world, and defeat seemed inevitable for the smaller, poorly equipped Mexican army that had, according to many estimates, only half the soldiers of the French army. Yet against all odds, the ragtag Mexican army decisively defeated the French outside of Puebla on May 5, 1862, and their victory was a huge morale boost not just for the army but for all Mexican citizens, one that unified the nation and created a surge in patriotism.
Regrettably, the Mexican army's victory was short-lived, and the French occupied Mexico for the next three years. However, there is too much partying to do to dwell on such negativity, and besides: too soon.
Cinco de Mayo: The Fabulous Fiestas
Not one to sit around to make sure that a victory in battle would lead to victory in war, Juarez declared that the anniversary of la batalla de Puebla would be a national holiday a mere four days after his army's surprise win. It's no longer a national holiday, but kids across Mexico get a day off from school, and the states of Puebla and Veracruz still consider it a full holiday. If you want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Mexico, the city of Puebla is the place to be. You have the chance to witness a stirring reenactment of the famous battle, and the festivities revolve around mouthwatering local cuisine, like the city's famous mole poblano.
Ironically enough, although Cinco de Mayo is important in Mexico, US revelries have given Cinco de Mayo the carefree, inebriated reputation quite unmoored from historical events that it has today. Originally, the Battle of Puebla uplifted oppressed Mexican coalminers working in California and inspired them to bring the celebration to the US. Today, many Americans use the day as an excuse to get together with friends, celebrate good times, and order tequila shots before five pm. Nevertheless, the best Cinco de Mayo festivities in the US take place in Los Angeles, a city rich in Mexican culture and heritage.
Curious to see how people around the world celebrate Cinco de Mayo? Two unlikely cities have earned reputations for hosting excellent Cinco de Mayo celebrations: London, England, and Brisbane, Australia. In London, there are opportunities to celebrate all over the city, from taking a Mexican cooking class to restaurants offering Mexican drink specials, so rent a car in London to make sure you can take in all the sights. If you decide to get a rental car in Brisbane, make sure you check out the huge Cinco de Mayo festival, replete with authentic Mexican food and drink, held on the banks of the Brisbane River every year. The Cinco de Mayo celebrations in either city are guaranteed to knock your green, white, and red socks off--just be smart and choose a designated driver to get you around!