Published on October 26, 2012 by Rosie Driffill
Candles, scattered petals and skeletons in feather boas; seemingly plucked from all manner of traditions, it’s easy to see how the ancient Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos leaves tourists both amazed and bewildered. Despite the toothy grimaces of the cadaverous plus-ones, it is in fact merriment that reigns supreme, and the Day of the Dead promises feasts, parades and music.
Image by Danorth
Though the festival is celebrated throughout the country, cities such as Mixquic – near Mexico city – and Oaxaca in the south, are famed for their processions and graveyard tours. For a particularly ghoulish experience, visit the Northern town of Guanajuato where graveyard processions pass by the Museum of Mummies. Here’s a brief guide to the history of the festival, and what travellers can expect from their experience:
An ancient tradition
With a penchant for festivities that pack a colourful punch, Mexicans spend the 1st and 2nd of November honouring the memory of deceased relatives. To correspond with All Saints Day and All Souls Day respectively, the celebrations are conducted on the premise that the souls of the dead return to earth to spend time with their loved ones. An ancient belief derived from the traditions of the indigenous Purepecha , Nahua, Totonac and Otomi people, Mexicans make sure that the dead they are honouring have as good a time as if they were alive.
Image by mRio
Testament to how fine Mexicans believe the line between life and death to be, the overwhelming presence of skulls can be explained by the Nahua belief that they in fact represent the living. This theme permeates confectionary too; the meringues on the seasonal pan de muertos cake are meant to symbolise bones. By mid-October, skull-shaped delicacies brandish their cavity-causing limbs in supermarkets across Mexico, while children cart home reams of crepe paper to fashion zempasuchil: a type of marigold used to guide lost spirits home.
Remembering loved ones
In the immediate build up to the event, tourists should expect to see arches made entirely of marigolds, which serve to symbolise the passageway between Mictlan – a place where the dead reside – and the realm of the living. Altars festooned with ribbons, candles, fruit, nuts and flowers are prepared; their completion depends on the addition of a bowl of water – to quench the thirst of spirits weary from their travels – and the rich pan de muertos.
Image by wallygrom
The first of November is given over to honouring the memory of dead children; named Dia de Angelitos after the ‘Little Angels’ that have passed into the next life, the rituals practised on this day are especially poignant for those families who have recently lost a child. Women prepare their loved ones’ favourite food, and the day will be spent cleaning the grave and preparing for the nightly vigil that leads into the second day’s festivities. As night falls, families make their way to the cemetery, life-sized skeletons in tow. Adults are remembered the following day, when toys and balloons give way to ornaments and succulent displays of gastronomic mastery.
If you’re in Mexico for Dia de los Muertos, prepare to be both amazed and inspired. There is no other festival in the world quite like it!
A freelance writer based in Leeds, Rosie's main interests comprise the arts, (eco) travel and the great outdoors. Rosie has just completed her BA in International Relations, and is currently studying for a diploma. In her spare time, she looks for ways to combine a passion for travel and a concern for the environment – no easy feat!