One woman proudly placed a turkey into my arms. Afraid to hurt the poor animal, I carefully took it like a baby into my arms and started dancing gently. But I was doing something seriously wrong, and I felt it hard. The woman grabbed the turkey out of my hands, bent back the wings, and started cruelly shaking the bird. The crowd went wild while watching the woman do that. Probably, that was the way to do it. The dance itself started to look more like a tribal ritual. The more the turkey was tortured, the higher levels of ecstasy were reached. I was bewildered. Why do Mexicans dance with the live turkey during their weddings? Well, this is what happened.

Life without coffee sometimes is scary. About to face the dangerously low levels of caffeine, I was starting my first day in Oaxaca with a cup of coffee in a small cafeteria. The place was idyllic – burrowed by the shadows of a cozy little church, this place had some cheap and surprisingly delicious coffee. The day’s heat was about to kick in, and all the windows were open. The radio was playing some American hits, which mingled with the sounds of baristas grinding the coffee and chattering of the guests. Probably, no matter how far you go, you will still find a place to have your morning coffee similar to your favorite cafeteria in your hometown.

But something wasn’t so familiar. Suddenly two giant heads passed through my window. ‘Boda. Boda!’.  Three baristas stopped making coffee and slipped outside to take a look. Two men were carrying giant sculptures of a man and a woman. ‘Gigantes!’ There was some bustle going on just beside the church. Many women in colorful traditional dresses, with their long dark hair plaited and decorated with vibrant ribbons, were standing by the church with baskets full of flowers and impatiently waiting for something. Musicians in electric-blue jackets were preparing their trumpets, and men in the corner were helping to zip someone up inside the two giant sculptures.

Finally, two figures walked out of the church dressed in white and dark. That was the moment all the gathering was waiting. The sound of fireworks (two flares, which sounded more like an explosion) meant the beginning of chaos. Trumpet sounds started vibrating the air around. Gigantes revived and started dancing to the rhythm, followed by the twirling women in colorful dresses with baskets on their heads. Girls were throwing candies into the air. An older man with absolutely white hair and mustache was dancing passionately with a vast sphere containing the names of bride and groom. When he caught my glimpse, he smiled and showed me to take a picture of him.

I felt bewitched by this happy chaos and very curious at the same time. When most of the gathering disappeared, I noticed gigantes being packed into the “chicken” truck. It was the now or never moment. At the end of the day, life is about taking opportunities. Hoping to see the civil ceremony of the weddings, I walked towards the truck and asked with my broken Spanish whether my boyfriend and I could come along. The driver just lifted his hands and showed to get in, next to gigantes. 

The road was bumpy and longer than I expected. Bump. I needed to hug the giant groom hard not to fall out. The truck was going faster and faster. Bump again. My head hit the ceiling of the truck, and the giant bride almost jumped out of the truck. I hope it was not out of jealousy… Finally, the speed slowed down, and I saw where the truck brought us. It was a big house of the groom’s parents, with a yard full of set-up tables for approximately 200 people. The newlyweds met us with a smile.

“De Europa? Comida, mezcal, corona, marijuana. Todo!”

Well, it seems that we have just crashed a wedding party. Wearing shorts and t-shirts…

Shortly the civil ceremony started. The couple was seated by the table, and the officer performed a very long ritual of reading the names, birth dates, professions, education, addresses of probably half of the family. He finished his ceremony by dramatically asking if someone has something against this marriage and, when the audience remained silent, wished the couple love and happiness.

Eating and Drinking

Corona Amigo?”

More than 20 waitresses were buzzing around the tables serving beer. It was a mental game. With my clear “no” look, I was trying to repel as many waitresses as I could. Every second was vital – less concentration could easily lead to a bottle for every spare hand and one, waiting its turn in front of you on the table. The alcohol repelling game lasted for a while, but I got tired. My look started to say more “maybe” than “no,” and eventually, I had to surrender and get drunk.

Mexican Weddings

The bride’s godfather was walking around the tables with the bottle of Mezcal – a traditional Mexican drink produced from the maguey plant, burning throat with up to 40% of alcohol. He seemed to be on a severe duty to talk and drink with every single guest. According to tradition, one of the godparents funds the alcohol for the wedding. This donation earns them the title of Padrino de Alcohol.  But it also brings responsibility to empty a massive bottle of Mezcal by offering it to the guests. All the alcohol that is left, padrino needs to finish himself. A liter of transparent liquid still sloshing in the bottle motivated him a lot to be charming and pour as much as possible to the glasses that were not his. Sadly, it didn’t help. When padrino finished with all the tables, he was out of the game and had to take time out somewhere in the corner.

Musicians played cumbia rhythm, hungry guests were chatting, and soon the air was filled with roasted meat. Waitresses started serving Barbacoa – a traditional dish in the Oaxacan wedding. The more modern word ‘barbecue’ derives its name from this dish, and it is a traditional Mexican way to prepare meat. Lamb, goat, or beef is roasted for many hours in the pit in the ground, covered with maguey leaves. Besides the main dish, guests were sipping a red cranberry-like lemonade in Latin America called Agua de Jamaica, made from calyces and roselle flowers. The big pot of Tejate was served – a traditional cold drink of Oaxaca State, made from toasted maize flour, fermented cacao beans, mamey pits, and flor de cacao (a typical tree in Mexico). It tasted like a mixture of oat drink and cold coffee.

“Ai, que rico!” señora at my table seemed to be more than satisfied.

Mexican Weddings

Who pays for the wedding?

How does a young couple manage to organize such a big party for their wedding? Señora at my table finished chewing the last pieces of barbacoa and were enthusiastically explaining the local customs. Unity is power. As well as family, which is a vital part of the culture. Weddings are the result of the common work and effort of both families. Some family members buy the wedding dress, others buy the wedding cake, alcohol, food, etc. Taking into consideration that Mexican families usually are huge, a big party is guaranteed.

Weddings typically last many days. In more urban areas, around 2 days, but in more rural areas, it can extend up to 6 days, and the guest list can reach up to 600 people. One day to celebrate the civil marriage ceremony, the other to mark the marriage in front of the god. Other days, probably to get drunk and dance. The families of bride and groom divide responsibilities to organize the fiesta for their children.

For example, the bride’s family pays for the party after the civil marriage. The groom’s family is responsible for funding the party after the wedding in the church, which usually is 5 times bigger and 5 times more expensive than the civil one. A more equal way of dividing responsibilities is celebrating 3 days in the bride’s house and then 3 days in the groom’s home. Or, as it happened in these weddings, both families shared the cost of a 2-day party. To crowdfund the fiesta, they sent over the two piggy banks: one with a gown and the other with a tie, for the guests to contribute to the party’s budget.

Time to play! Local Wedding´s Games

Mexican Weddings

When all kinds of hunger and thirst were quenched, big smiles lit the faces again, and people started dancing, probably to digest the main course before an even more promising dessert. The musicians began arranging people in lines. It was time to play some wedding games.

In the middle of the yard, two chairs were placed. On one of them, the men lifted the bride, and on the other, the groom stood up. The bride´s gown formed a bridge connecting the two chairs. The moderator invited strong men to help to hold the groom, and the most macho guys surrounded the groom, not letting him fall from the chair. The game is called Víbora de la Mar. The aim of the game is to steal the groom.

The first round is for the girls. They are running in circles around the chairs and trying to break the human wall around the groom to steal him, or in other words – try to ‘save’ him from the marriage. The second round is for the guys to try to do the same. This game ¨tests¨ how strong the relationship is and if the groom is ready to keep his promises under any conditions.

And the conditions were pretty harsh. Quite drunk guests started storming and hustling the place. The chair was shaking, the gown was torn out, the groom lost his shoes, machos couldn´t take it any longer, and the crowd won. The guys grabbed the groom, lifted him in the air, and, accompanied by the tones of a funeral march, started marching around the yard. At the end of the yard, the bride was waiting for her prey. End of fun, only serious commitment is waiting ahead. The groom was seated in front of his wife barefoot. The wife kneeled in front of her man and started putting on his shoes.

When he was single, he was dressing himself. Now he has a wife to dress him” – explained my new friend at the table.

Before it got even more humiliating, the other part of the game started. Suddenly the newlyweds switched roles. The bride took a belt out of the groom’s pants, gave him a broom, and started motivating her husband to work by lashes. The groom continued whipping the floor, accompanied by hard laughs from the audience. The fun was over – now the groom will be serious and take care of the home.

The mystery of the Dancing Turkey

The dance itself started to look more like a tribal ritual. The more the turkey was tortured, the higher levels of ecstasy were reached.

Something was very vibrant in the air. After a small rest, guests started fussing. There was something important coming, and you could quickly feel it in the air. Men started distributing sombreros, females dressed up with red bandanas, musicians were blowing harder into their trumpets. And suddenly, the tension was relieved – the best man appeared in the yard with two live turkeys in his hands.

‘Danza de Guajolote!”

Suddenly the real party started, everyone started dancing, women raised their bandanas in the air. The turkeys were moving from one hand to the others, from one dancing person to another. One woman proudly placed a turkey into my arms. Afraid to hurt the poor animal, I carefully took it like a baby into my arms and started dancing gently. But I was doing something seriously wrong, and I felt it really hard. The woman grabbed the turkey out of my hands, bent back the wings, and started cruelly shaking the bird. The crowd went wild while watching the woman do that. Probably, that was the way to do it. The turkey lost most of its feathers. The music rhythm was going faster and faster, the dance was becoming harsher and harsher, and everyone seemed to reach the trance state. The dance itself started to look more like a tribal ritual. The more the turkey was tortured, the higher levels of ecstasy were reached.

oaxacan wedding

Several more ecstatic moments and the half-dead turkeys disappeared. No one noticed. Everyone continued to dance widely. Soon the smell of the boiling meat spread in the air. Many dancing feet and many shoes were trampling the black feathers – all that was left from the birds. I raised one and secretly put it in my pocket. Guajolote, you are probably in a better place now…

I left puzzled by this ritual. Why sacrifice a turkey by dancing with it? And why a turkey in the first place? Why make a bird suffer before it eventually dies? What is the meaning of all this? It needs to have a purpose. Nothing is as simple as it seems at the beginning. I needed to find an explanation and solve the mystery of dancing with a turkey. I started by asking the best man straightforwardly what the meaning of this dance was.

“Oh, tomorrow we will eat the turkey for breakfast” was the answer without over-analysis. But it couldn’t be just this. It does not explain the ecstatic state while dancing with the bird.

My landlord also seemed aware of the turkey and the weddings:

“Hmmm, I’m not sure. Maybe it is related to good luck. Turkeys are popular birds in Mexico.” But it wasn’t helping to get closer to the answer.

One more dancing turkey…

From far away, a sound of tuba was carried. The procession of many people was coming towards me. Above the heads of the guests was a basket crowned with red flowers. From the depths of the flower bush, two eyes were observing the crowd. Proud, like an Ancient Rome Emperor, the turkey was sailing through the troop.

After a couple days, I contacted my new friend. Señora was happy to hear that I was interested in the local culture.

“I am going to a bigger wedding in the village, come with me, and you’ll see.”

This wedding was longer and bigger. More than 600 people were present to celebrate the union of two loving souls. And it was already the 2nd day of the 4-day celebration. I was eager to know more about Guajolote.

Everything already seemed familiar. Waiters were serving barbacoa, there was a lot of corona, many sweaty figures were moving their hips according to the cumbia. When the sun reached the horizon, a significant moment came. It came in the form of a sound.

From far away, a sound of tuba was carried. The procession of many people was coming towards me. Above the heads of the guests was a basket crowned with red flowers. From the depths of the flower bush, two eyes were observing the crowd. Proud, like an Ancient Rome Emperor, the turkey was sailing through the troop.

The tuba and the drum started playing louder and louder, raising the inner heat up to the state of trance. The basket was going from one dancing man to another, as a jag was passing through the hands of dancing women. Men, drunk and intoxicated by the moment, were becoming more and more violent. They spun harder and harder.

Soon the basket was decrowned, and the red flowers flooded the floor like blood under the tramping feet. The frightened turkey tried to abandon its basket, but it drowned into the depth of the crowd. Then the basket was raised again. It flew up to the ceiling and back into the crowd, like fighting a storm of life and death. But there was only death waiting ahead, and the turkey seemed to understand that. Soon it hid his head in the basket and froze, waiting for the moment of its last minutes. My eyes filled with tears.

“Open-minded, be open-minded”, I was repeating to myself. How can I judge something that I don’t understand?

When the macabre dance was over, the basket was lying on the ground. Together with the garbage, the turkey was silently sitting in the basket. A couple women came to check if it is still alive.

“You are still alive?!” one drunk man hit the turkey into the head. It raised the head, but the look was empty. It didn’t see the crowd anymore. It already seemed to be looking at the other world.

Finding answers deep inside the Oaxacan Market

It was dinner time. My friends and I were having a meal in the Oaxaca’s market. The table was covered with a plastic tablecloth, and hungry cats were trying to steal leftovers from the garbage. The food was terrible, but it cost only 30 pesos (2 euros), and my friends wanted to save some money. The cats around my feet finished their trashy meal. I followed them with my eyes when they disappeared around the corner. The waiter served a suspicious meat dish in front of my friend. 

“What is the meaning of the turkey dance?” The waiter didn’t seem to know the answer but invited his more tradition-aware wife to the table.

“Dancing with the turkey shows the difficulties that marriage will face. If the turkey, before going to the pot, survives the dance, the marriage will also survive all ups and downs,” – explained the woman.

The turkey was an impersonification of the daily dance of life and death that we are all part of. Being shaken and tormented by the powers that do not depend on us. But is marriage really a torment of the turkey? Or constant whip lashes?

“Marriage is hard work. You need to get used to respect and trust the other person no matter what”, my friend señora was sharing her success story of being married for about 20 years. The turkeys survived the dance. Hopefully, the marriages that they sacrificed themselves for will survive as well.


Heard of even more weird wedding tradition? Share it with us.