I’ve been living in Mexico for over a year now, and I’m very fortunate to be about to experience Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) for the second time. However, I’ve been asked by many of my British friends if Day of the Dead is just a Mexican version of Halloween. The simple answer is no. Day of the Dead is an integral part of Mexican culture, and has its origins in the pre-Columbian cultures that were present in Mexico many centuries ago. Most people are aware of this Mexican holiday thanks to the James Bond franchise, where Daniel Craig is seen running through a parade for Day of the Dead in Mexico City. But, did you know this parade was actually only invented for Spectre, before this film was released, a parade in Mexico City for Day of the Dead was unheard of. But, the year following the release of the film, many people came to Mexico City to see the parade, so ever since then the Mexicans have put on this parade for the foreigners. So if originally there was no parade for Day of the Dead, how did Mexicans celebrate it? And what were they celebrating?
Well, Day of the Dead is actually a religious celebration. Technically, the actual Day of the Dead is 2nd November; however over the years, the tradition has evolved to also include 31st October and 1st November as well. 1st November is referred to as Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), and is the day when Mexicans honour all the children who have died. 2nd November is Día de los difuntos (Day of the Dead), and is the day when families honour the adults they have lost. It is believed that on these days, the souls of the deceased return to earth to be with their families and loved ones. To honour the dead as they return to Earth, families build huge ofrendas (shrines) for them. If anyone has seen the film Coco, they will have a vague idea of what I mean. These shrines include photographs, the deceased’s favourite food and drink, pan de meurto (a sweet bread typical of this holiday) and flor de muerto (flower of the dead). Mexicans leave a trail of flor de muerto from their front doors to the shrines they have built for their loved ones in their homes. It is believed that the flowers will help guide the dead to the shrines. The day after Day of the Dead, they say that food in the shrine has lost all its aroma and flavour, because the dead feed on the aroma as they are unable to physically eat it. Throughout Mexico, costumes, body paint, and imagery of skulls and bones are also often used as important symbols to honour the dead during this holiday.
It is important to note that the celebrations for this holiday, especially for Día de los Angelitos and Dia de los Muertos, vary widely throughout the different regions of Mexico. What I explained above is what I have experienced during Day of the Dead. But, in some areas of Mexico, the cemetery plays a bigger role than the home in the celebrations.
I have only ever experienced the celebrations that take place in people’s homes, and I would like to elaborate on this. Last year, I was very fortunate to be able to visit the small town of Huaquechula, in the state of Puebla. During the celebrations, the locals open up their houses to the public so that everyone can admire their ofrendas. These ofrendas are very extravagant and take up entire rooms of the house. Pictures do not do these ofrendas justice, and I would highly recommend a visit to the town to witness this celebration first hand. Speaking to the families about their loved ones, and seeing how much time and dedication it took them to build their ofrendas, is a truly humbling experience.
I’ve also been told that the celebrations for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca and Michoacán are some of the best in the country. I’ve not been able to visit these states during Day of the Dead before, but fingers crossed that I’ll be able to visit one of them this year!