Should you travel to Mexico for Day of the Dead?

You probably already recognize the sugar skulls, the paper clippings and people dressed up as skeletons. In the beginning of November is the Day of the Dead held in Mexico, which is an old tradition, that not surprisingly draws many tourists and travellers to Mexico.

For a long time, I’ve dreamed about experiencing the Day of the Dead in Mexico. The opening sequence of the James Bond movie “Spectre” didn’t help to stop that. So my husband, my 11 year old son and I went backpacking from Mexico City to Cancun beginning on October 31.

Here are why it’s a good AND a bad idea to go for this colourful holiday!

THE TRADITION

Do you know, that most of the world have a similar national holiday at the same time? Maybe the gates are open! Decide for yourself, if this is an upside or downside…

Playground turned into an alter for the dead in Mexico City & skeleton enjoying the view in Oaxaca

The Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is a tradition, where families meet and remember their dead and help them on their spiritual journey. The tradition is listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO,  and it started way back with the Aztecs celebration of the queen of the underworld Mictecacihuatl. 

The modern day festival is influenced by Spanish (and Christian traditions), but she is still there known today as the Lady of the Dead. The distinct orange flowers (Merigolds), the sugar skulls, bread and water are all key ingredients as you can see in the pictures. This will help the dead find their way and offer them something to eat and drink.

Day of the Dead in Mexico City

In the city of Campeche, there was on Saturday a very impressive light show on the facade of a beautiful colonial building showing the history of Mexico and the national holidays. I caught the part showing this holiday…

PROS & CONS FOR GOING TO THE DAY OF THE DEAD

THE UPSIDES

The pros to travelling to Mexico for this day is obvious. The cities are decorated with skulls, puppets, the orange flowers, alters and the fine paper garlands everywhere. Even weeks after the celebration, you see decorations still up.

Where to go

On of the best places to go s a tourist is the large market in the part of Mexico City called Coyoacán. The huge market is filled with music, stalls with every kind of souvenir and food, and the car-free streets make this extremely popular and crowded. We really liked it, and it was actually the only celebration, we felt we could be part of.

I’m pretty sure, that the best way to experience this tradition is with a Mexican family. So if you know a family or stay at a private home, try and ask if you can participate in a respectful way. Or go to one of the smaller towns, where it’s easier to find and be part of a public celebration. In Puebla and Angangueo, it was obvious that there had been huge tents on the town square, which is a lot easier to participate in…

THE DOWNSIDES

The actual day is November 2., but the celebration lasts several days. Being national holidays many things were closed (except for a few museums). This is not great, when you are a tourist visiting for a few days.

The celebrations mainly take place in people’s homes and/or the cemetery. This we could of course not experience or take part in.

We had planned the entire trip’s departure date, so we could experience this. But when we arrived, we discovered that we had missed the giant parade by a few days, sine it’s held before the Day of the Dead. (Yes, I know this is my own fault, but in my defense it was the first year it was held, so we didn’t have the information before the tickets were booked). But also –the parade is a new thing created mainly for tourists. Many of the newspapers were filled with critical articles stating, that this is destroying the old tradition. This made me a little less sad, that I missed it…

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The Day of the Dead Market in Coyoacán, Mexico City

A GLOBAL TRADITION

The dead is everywhere!

I am not religious or superstitious, but I find it very interesting, that the days around November 1 play a special role in several countries only with small divergences. Most cultures apparently agree that this is a time, where the “borders” between the living and the dead are open!

In Denmark, we call the first Sunday in November: Allehelgens dag (All Saint’s day). This is a Christian holiday remembering the dead, but also Christian martyrs or saints. The celebration goes back to the Middle Ages, when all saints had their own day. But in the end there was just too many days, and around 1500 we just packed them all in to one day – November 1. Instead we prayed for the souls of the ordinary dead on All Soul’s day November 2.

When Denmark became protestants, we ditched the saints and the extra day, and the focus went to dead relatives (even though the day is still named after the saints which is kind of stupid…). No one really celebrates it!

Decorations in Angangueo

Halloween and more

Maybe that’s why, we adopted the Halloween tradition instead. It is held on October 31, and the word Halloween originates from All Hallows Eve – just pronounce it really fast and lazy-like. This tradition is much more my style, since this originates from a Celtic tradition from 800 B.C. marking the end of summer and the beginning of winter, which is to be understood as the last day of the year. At this time of year, the divide between the living and the dead was gone. So people went to their ancestor’s graves to make sure they were well and did not want to roam the earth. 

I’ve also read about the double Ninth Festival or Chrysanthemum Festival held in China. The date vary, but this year it is October 28, and it is considered a potentially dangerous date. Some Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects and lay out food offerings.

So maybe this time of year is a special time, and just to be on the safe side: Thanks ancestors, but stay out!

If you’re need more reasons to visit, find the Mexican entry in my Top 10 World Heritage Sites!

Do you like travel for holidays?