Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated the first two days of November throughout Mexico, as well as in other parts of the world. Combining aspects of Halloween, a funeral and Marti Gras, the holiday boldly incorporates joy, sorrow, darkness and color. Experiencing the celebration last year in Oaxaca, Mexico, I found it to be a reminder to live life to the fullest.
Day of the Dead is a huge holiday in many Mexican cities and can be seen in different ways all over Oaxaca.
Colourful skeletons and skulls are everywhere. Whether they are made out of candy, clay, paper mache, tissue paper or wood, Mexican skeletons or calaveras have just as much personality as their flesh and blood counterparts and are famous worldwide for their gaudy humoristic style. Boney brides, doctors, mariachis, painters and Aztec warriors stare and grin at passersby. They smirk from shop windows and markets, flap and jump in the wind on tissue paper banners. They peek around street corners and loom over you from murals that take up a whole wall. They are painstakingly molded, chizled, cut, baked and painted to represent the hobbies, passions and occupations of the loved ones who have passed on to the other side.
As with Halloween, costumes are a big part of Day of the Dead. Many women dress up as “La Catrina” (The Elegant Skull). Originally a 1910 etching print by Jose Guadalupe Posada, she has since become the most iconic image of Day of the Dead and has had songs, poems, paintings and sculptures all dedicated to her.
La Catrina is a true Travel Belle. She makes the journey all the way from the otherworld to attend the party of the year and arrives looking drop dead gorgeous.
No festival or party is complete without culinary goodies. For weeks beforehand, the markets overflow with traditional foods like mole, hot chocolate and tamales. These will be shared in the homes and the panteones, or cemeteries, of Oaxaca with visitors from both worlds. Sugar skulls and chocolate cadavers smile toothy smiles, waiting to be given as gifts to the living or offerings to the dead. Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead, is sweet bread eaten in honor of the ancestors and family members who have passed on.
Altars are set up in homes, businesses, main plazas and the various cemeteries around Oaxaca. Photos, marigold flowers (known as the death flower), hot chocolate, fruit, mescal (similar to tequila), papel picado (tissue paper cut-outs) and candles are all key elements seen on most altars. From the most simple to the most elaborate, the intention is the same: to pay tribute to the deceased and invite them back for one day of the year to celebrate ‘la vida.’
Starting in the afternoon of October 31st, thousands flock to the local cemeteries to prepare for the arrival of the angelitos, the souls of the children. Small graves are decorated with favorite toys, sweets and flowers to coax the littlest of spirits to come out to play. This is an emotional day. The main focus, however, in not on grief but on celebrating the precious lives of the angelitos with music, treats and laughter. The party goes on long into the night and only winds down the afternoon of the next day. The tiny souls go back into their world, cuing the adults to make their appearance.
Relatives and friends share bittersweet memories and food in the candlelit darkness while 12-piece bands belt out riotous numbers. Tamales, hot chocolate laced with mescal and strong black coffee are passed around while merrymakers and grievers dance around tombstones. In the colorful darkness, the mix of emotion pulls at the crowd like a wave. Whispers and giggles from the resurrected dead float on the night air, reminding you to live life now.