Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Day of the Dead - 7 reasons to experience it

The Day of the Dead is, I think, a pretty unique celebration.  Not at all sad and gloomy, nor scary and creepy, it is a colourful, cheery and so typically Mexican defiance of mortality.  Perhaps it breaks a few modern taboos along the way, but it's all about reverence and respect for the dead, a way of connecting with your deceased loved ones and your ancestors and mocking the finality of death.

I didn't know anything much about it before I came to Mexico, so I thought I'd describe some of the customs associated with this fascinating holiday.

The day of the dead
The Day of the Dead is on November 2nd, although on November 1st people make altars especially for children - "the little angels".  Coming straight after Halloween, the two customs often end up merging together.

You can see the celebrations all over Mexico.  There are some places that are famous for their Day of the Dead festivities, for example, the village of Patzcuaro in Michoacan, or the city of Oaxaca.  Wherever you are, it's probably customary to pay a visit to the graveyard or cemetery and perhaps take a meal to "share" with the dearly departed.

Day of the dead gravestones

Wherever you go at this time of year you will see bright orange and yellow cempasuchil flowers (marigolds), for sale on markets and in greengrocers, and adorning altars to attract the souls of the deceased with their warm fiery colours.  Sometimes the flowers are arranged to form a path leading the dead towards the altar.

The most common way to celebrate, in cities and villages alike, is to make an "Altar de Muertos", a sort of altar dedicated to one person in particular which has specific elements with different meanings and purposes.  The purpose of the altar is to invite the dead back to the world of the living to eat and drink the things that they enjoyed when they were alive and they are built in homes, shops, schools and sometimes at the graveside.  Common elements, apart from the food and drink, include a cross, an image of the deceased person, salt (to represent purification), flowers, fruit, a glass of water, candles and copal incense to guide the dead and ward off evil spirits.   In the cemetery of Mixquic in the south of Mexico City, families prepare altars at the graves of their loved ones with offerings of the deceased's favourite food and drink.
Altar de muertos
"La Catrina" has become a ubiquitous figure during the Day of the Dead celebrations.  She is a vain society lady dressed up in turn of the (20th) century fashion, but... she's a skeleton!  She was created in 1910 by the artist José Guadalupe Posada who is known for his etchings of skeleton figures.

the day of the dead Catrina
Like any Mexican festivity, there are special foods associated with it.  Pan de Muerto, a special kind of bun made with butter and covered in sugar, starts to appear in bakeries from around the end of September.  In some places the pan de muerto is in the form of a body and made with aniseed.  "Calaveritas" are colourfully decorated sugar skulls, or sometimes made from chocolate or amaranth, which are typically given as a gift to a friend, with the name of the friend written on a little paper stuck to the forehead of the skull.

Lastly, in the village of Pomuch in Campeche, they have a very peculiar tradition; the inhabitants actually clean the bones of their deceased relatives and dress them up ready for the Day of the Dead, also washing and repainting their display cases.  They do this without any particular ritual, for them it's all very natural and matter-of-fact.

These are a few of the traditions surrounding this holiday, but there are many more... If you're intrigued, why not come and experience the Day of the Dead for yourself?  I'm sure there's nothing quite like it anywhere else!


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21 comments:

  1. Such lovely photographs and a really interesting read.

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  2. Ruth, this was such a great read!! I knew a little about day of the dead but it was so interesting to read so much more about it! Such a fascinating celebration, I'd love to be in Mexico for it some time. My auntie is living there right now and I know she loved it!
    Thanks so much for sharing this with #myexpatfamily I LOVED reading this! X

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    1. It is a really interesting and quite strange celebration, hopefully one day you'll be able to see it for yourself! Thanks for hosting and for your lovely comment!

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  3. i had never heard of this - how fascinating! Still made me feel a little uncomfortable at the thought of some of the things you mentioned though, especially the bone washing! I guess because it is not customary here it seems so strange! #KCACOLS

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    1. Some of the customs are very strange to us, but definitely interesting!

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  4. I've heard of this Macabre festival, looks like fun for the whole family to get involved and an excuse to eat yummy food! #KCACOLS

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    1. It is fun, with solemn aspects to it, too, but also funny. Actually, I forgot to mention the humorous poems about Death, that's another thing. Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. This is not something I have heard of before or ever come across. It really does make for an interesting read. xx #KCACOLS

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    1. It's even more interesting to see and experience "in the flesh", there's so much more to it! Thanks for commenting!

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  7. Thanks for linking up to #kcacols, hope to see you again next week x

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  8. What an intriguing post! So so so interesting. I have heard of this festival but only a fleeting sort of knowledge. I love reading and learning about diverse life experiences and cultures. So thank you for sharing this bit of information at #abitofeverything

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  9. I love the idea of a day for celebrating the dead. It seams to be quite a contrast from halloween where the dead are evil figures that we shpuld be scared of.
    In not so sure about washing the bones tradition but that is just my scardy cat self coming through xx

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    1. Yes, it's more about your own ancestors, friends or relatives, and often quite religious. The bone washing is a little extreme, I agree!

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  10. It sounds amazing! Until now all I knew about the day of the dead was through the film 'the book of life' which actually fits with this remarkably well! So interesting to hear about the different customs which are pretty much the opposite of anything we'd do in Britain! #abitofeverything

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    1. I haven't seen that film, I'll have to watch it now! Thanks for commenting!

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  11. How fascinating! This was such an interesting read. I had heard of the festival, but didn't really know much about it. Thanks for sharing! #myexpatfamily

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    1. I'm glad you liked it! There are so many more customs connected with this festival, I only scratched the surface really.

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