The Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a national holiday in Mexico, a tradition that’s so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of the country that it’s almost a cultural imperative. The actual holiday–the day the banks and government offices are all closed–is November the 2nd, which correlates to a broad assortment of similar celebrations, both secular and religious, in numerous other countries and among numerous other cultures throughout the world. This is not a time for grieving, rather, it’s a day when the living pray for the souls of departed family and friends, and honor and celebrate their memories. Mexico is primarily a Catholic country, and the Day of the Dead is directly tied to the Catholic celebration known as All Soul’s Day. As practiced in Mexico, this is a day when families gather at the cemetery, bringing flowers, offerings of food and drink, and personal items that were favored by the deceased. Stories are told, memories are shared, there’s laughter, as well as a few tears. All in all, it’s a relatively healthy way of dealing with the loss of loved ones, and of keeping their memory alive.
The run-up to the Day of the Dead starts on October 31st. In the U.S. we celebrate that date as Halloween, the day when our kids dress up as ghosts and goblins, super heroes and Disney princesses, and then wander around our neighborhoods extorting candy from our neighbors. (Well, not REALLY extorting, but the whole notion of “Trick or Treat” implies a threat–give me candy or I’ll soap your windows–even though nobody really does that anymore). That too coincides with a Catholic holiday, this one known as All Saint’s Eve, or All Hallow’s Eve. Officially, the night before All Saints Day, which is celebrated on November 1st, and is, for the Catholics, a day for the veneration of all saints and martyrs. In Mexico, the three days are generally considered together as one big contiguous holiday, but there are discrete parts to it. Personally, I’ve experienced this fascinating celebration just once, in San Miguel de Allende, in 2015. I can’t say with any certainty that the structure and sequence of the festivities is the same in other parts of Mexico. But here’s how it works in San Miguel:
Day 1: October 31st: All Saints Eve, or All Hallows Eve, aka, Halloween: From what I witnessed, it’s a whole lot like the American version of Halloween, only it’s a bit more lively, and definitely more communal. This is the day when whole families dress up and come to El Jardin, the Central Plaza, and make a few circuits around the square (note: as always, you can click any of these photos for an expanded view):
There’s a tradition in San Miguel de Allende that may not be universal throughout Mexico: people, mostly older expat retiree types, show up at the Jardin with gargantuan bags of candy. They station themselves at various points around the square, and as the costumed kids walk by, they pass out sweets by the handful. It’s just like in the U.S.–but, then again, the people passing out the candy were mostly from the U.S. It may not have been authentic, but who cares? It was very familiar, and a whale of a lot of fun to watch:
Day 2: November 1st, All Saints Day: In SMDA, this is the day for the grown-ups to get crazy and parade themselves around the square. Families are still welcome, but the costumes get a whole lot fancier, as this is the day they have the contest for the best Catarina, and the Desfile de Las Catarinas (the Catarina Parade). For the uninitiated, Catarina is the most enduring symbol of the Dia de Los Muertos, the dressed up sexy skeleton. Call her the non-threatening symbolic representation of death itself:
Everybody in town, almost without exception, gets their face painted:
The BIG costumes come out, and they parade around the square as well:
There are performers, and performances for the entertainment of the crowd, which grows to fair size as the evening marches along:
Day 3: November 2nd: All Souls Day, aka, Dia de Los Muertos: This is the day when families create their ofrendas, altars, in honor of their dead. Some are in public places, like El Jardin, some are in peoples’ homes, some are at the cemeteries. Two things they all have in common: marigolds, and a skeleton motif:
None of this is intended to be gruesome, definitely not fearsome, and the kids get into it in the same way that most kids love Halloween. The skulls, and many other elements on the altar displays, are usually sweet treats, made of solid sugar, a fact that isn’t lost on the local bee population:
Like any other holiday, or like anything else that people enjoy, there’s merchandising that goes along with the Day of the Dead, and some of it is pretty wonderful, the craftsmanship superb. Since this is Mexico, we’re not talking about cheap plastic junk mass produced in China:
The Dia de Los Muertos, and the remarkable celebration that it has come to be, began as a tradition in central and southern Mexico as a springtime festival dedicated to an Aztec goddess. That native festival was subverted by the church–a fairly common practice–and the timing of the celebration was moved to the fall of the year, to coincide with All Souls Day on the Catholic calendar. The original Aztec traditions never held sway in northern Mexico, so in that region, the Catholic observance was never more than just that, a call to prayer that was private, and subdued, not at all a public spectacle. All of that changed after the Mexican government created the national holiday. Today, the Dia de Los Muertos, which the United Nations declared to be “An intangible World Heritage”, is celebrated throughout Mexico, as well as in many other parts of the world–anywhere that is home to any significant number of Mexican immigrants. But there are a few spots that are justifiably famous for having the best, the gaudiest, and the most enthusiastic celebrations of all. Opinions vary, but everyone’s list includes the city of Oaxaca, in the state of Oaxaca. The town of Patzcuaro, in Michoacan, is another that everyone agrees is special, and then there’s Mérida, in the Yucatan, where they get behind the celebration in a very major way. Ah, and then there is San Miguel de Allende. I can personally endorse that one–the whole experience was just extraordinary. I plan to make it my goal to check out at least a few of the others over the next few years. I’ll let y’all know which one is REALLY the best! Click the link (below) to access a gallery of my photos from the three day celebration in San Miguel de Allende:
Click the thumbnail (above) to access a gallery of photos from the Dia de los Muertos celebration in San Miguel de Allende
(Note: A number of the photos in this gallery, and several of the photographs in this post, were taken by Michael Fritz, and are used here with his permission).