Mexicans love to celebrate, it’s a fact. They find every possible occasion to celebrate and have a party! When a public holiday falls on a weekend, they move the celebration to the next working day, which I’m sure you’ll agree is genius! There are quite a few public holidays in Mexico but one of the most celebrated and heartfelt, besides Easter is the Day of the Dead (Dias de Muertos). In this blog we explore more about what is day of the dead, the history, how it’s celebrated and the best places to go and see the celebration.
History of the Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead blends ancient traditions, catholic religion and an interesting history that goes back before the Spaniards invaded the region. Celebrating Day of the Dead dates back to the time of the Mayans and Aztecs. They believed that death is not something to mourn because it’s part of the natural course of life. On the contrary, mourning the dead is a sign of disrespect. Therefore, the Day of the Dead is an occasion of joy and happiness. It is a celebration of ancestors coming back to the living world to visit and get together with their family.
For the ancient civilisation, they dedicated the first of November, Todos Santos (All Saints), to the souls of kids. The 2nd November they dedicated to the souls of adults.
In the pre-Hispanic era it was common practice to conserve the skulls and show them off as trophies, a symbol of death and renaissance. The celebration took place on the ninth month of the Aztecan calendar around the beginning of August. It lasted the entire month!
The Spanish conquerors, who put all their effort to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism, moved the festivities to the beginning of November so that they matched with the catholic celebration of All Saints and All Souls. The real essence of the ancient rituals never disappeared though.
How do Mexicans celebrate now?
The pre-hispanic civilisations believed that the soul is immortal. After the physical death it continues its journey in the underworld where it needs tools and food. That’s why food and decorative objects play such an important role. However, the most representative element of the Day of the Dead holiday in Mexico is the altar with its offerings, mainly food and special desserts that are prepared only at this time of year. Everything has a special meaning though, and it’s a representation of the Mexican vision of death, and full of allegories.
In places with a stronger tradition, they begin placing and decorating altars on October 28th. They reach their maximum splendour on November 2nd. Often on the first day they light a candle and place a white flower. The next day another candle is added and a glass of water offered. By day 3, they light a new candle, place another glass of water and some white bread. The next day the seasonal fruit appears (tangerine, guava, orange, apple, tejocote). For 1st November it’s the sweet food, the chocolate, the pumpkin in tacha, and the flowers are placed. On the main day they place the favourite food of the deceased, along with tequila, mezcal and beer.
You will find, or more accurately smell, the copal (an incense made from tree resin and burned to draw in the spirits). It really enhances the spiritual atmosphere.
The most traditional is the seven-level altar. It represents the levels that the soul must go through in order to reach the place of its utmost enlightenment and spiritual stage. They cover each step with tablecloths, confetti, banana leaves, palm kernels and “papel picado” (a squared sheet of paper cut in a decorative way and comes in different bright colours). Each step of the altar has a different meaning as well.
Where are the best places in Mexico to see the Day of the Dead celebrations?
The Day of the Dead is celebrated and very much heartfelt throughout all of Mexico. However, there are a couple of places that have become popular specifically for their Day of Dead celebrations.
In Oaxaca “The Days of the Dead” represents a mixture of tradition, worship, celebration, magic and history. It is a magnificent show that takes place in the pantheons. They adorn the main pantheon with more than 2,400 candles. Among many activities, the Altars of the Dead Contest stands out for us. Each family spectacularly decorates the tombs as a tribute and offering to their beloved ones that have left this world. The entire City of Oaxaca prepares for this meeting with the deceased. In each of the Pantheons there are activities for everyone to participate or just watch.
Pazcuaro, in the state of Michoacan, offers another incredible place to watch the Day of the Dead. Besides the pantheon decorations, here they also decorate all of the fishing boats with candles and flowers in all colours – quite a sight! The islands in the Pazcuaro lake, especially the Janitizio, have activities, festivals, and shows to entertain the locals and tourists. They go on all day and night from the 28th of October until November 2nd.
Around 2 million people attended last year’s Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. It’s no surprise therefore that it’s been cancelled for 2020 due to Covid 19. In order to maintain traditions in the face of the pandemic, the city has been exploring ways in which it can be held virtually. Other options explored were Day of the Dead drive-in theatres, or tours by car as alternatives to dense crowds in the streets.
Apparently there will be an app called “Xóchitl” that will work as an interactive digital platform, connecting to live streams of performances, and dance and artistic parades in different parts of Mexico. You will also be able to upload photos of deceased loved ones on a virtual altar. The developers have been working on the app since June, but the Day of the Dead is approaching and the app was not yet available when this blog was published…
We hope you enjoyed reading our blog on What is Day of the Dead. Definitely a celebration you should not miss if you happen to be in Mexico during this time in the near future.
This blog was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated in October 2020 with added content