Next week – on November 2. – it is the Day of the Dead. This is an old tradition, that draws many tourists and travellers to Mexico. Here are why it’s a good AND a bad idea to go!
And did you know 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…
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 last year my husband, my 11 year old son and I went backpacking from Mexico City to Cancun in a month on October 31.
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 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.
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. Here is the clip about the Day of the Dead:
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 trips departure date, so we could experience this. But when we arrived we discovered we had missed the giant parade by a few days. This is 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 and many of the new papers were filled with critical articles stating that this is destroying the old tradition. This made me a little less sad that I missed it…
The cities are decorated with skulls, puppets, the orange flowers, alters and the fine paper garlands everywhere. Even all through our month long journey we saw the decorations up many places.
The day after we found (by coincidence) a large market in the part of town called Coyoacán, and there was music, stalls with every kind of souvenir and food, and the streets were car free. It was extremely crowded, but the only celebration we actually could be part of.
The best way to experience this tradition is definitely 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 is 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…
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 and around 1500, we just packed them all in to one day – November 1 and 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!
Maybe that’s why we started to adopt the Halloween tradition instead. It is held on October 31, and the word Halloween originates from All Hallows Eve -just say it fast and lazy-like. This is also 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 a special time of the year, so just to be on the safe side: Thanks ancestors, but stay out!
Have you celebrated The Day of the Dead anywhere?