Experience the Day of the Dead in Mexico

Mexico’s El Dia de Muertos is certainly a colorful holiday veiled in mysticism, satire, playfulness and poignancy all at the same time. If you’re thinking of experiencing the bursting festivities of the Day of the Dead right at the source, the center of the Yucatan peninsula and the Mayan town of Pomuch could give you the purest pre-hispanic feel of the holiday. Here, the bones of the dead are exhumed to be brushed up for the following year.

Oaxaca wins the award for the most visually appealing holiday, with its famous artists and artisans who make striking street altars of colored sawdust.

Even though it might not seem exotic, Mexico City is also an excellent place to partake in this day (actually it usually lasts at least two days and often longer). In the capital you can see how this day undergoes slight changes every year in order to stay part of the Mexican cultural core.

The festival originates in the pagan pre-Colombian times of Central America and reflects how local cultures, including Aztecs, were fascinated by death and the world beyond. The holiday took place mid-year, but during the colonization it got pushed back to coincide with All Saints’ Day to make the pagan-Christian transition more acceptable.

The central feature of the holiday is street altars called ofrendas in Spanish. They are lavishly adorned with flowers, especially cempazúchitl or wild marigold. The name of this flower in Aztec language meant the flower of the dead, and it’s believed to help the dead find their way home. It acts as a beacon for the souls of ancestors who are coming back from the underworld to stay with their relatives. Ofrendas can also have a mirror, a basin and a towel, for the dead to freshen up after their tiring journey. Next, they can help themselves to food, fruit and sweets laid all around on the altar. Sweet bread which is called pan de muerto should give them most sustenance. 

It’s important to remember that festivities have a humorous tone. In the markets and along the streets you’ll see people in costumes, drunken skeleton sculptures, exuberantly dressed females and sugar skulls on which you can write your name in icing.

But what you must do if you find yourself in Mexico on the Day of the Dead is paying a visit to a cemetery. In Mexico City, you can go to San Gregorio Atlapulco, Xochimilco, where you can still see traditional community living in the metropolis. In the late evening on November 1st, you can see streams of families bending under the burden of materials they need to set up their altars on graves. Some are stunningly creative, but taken together in the warm orange aura of candles and marigolds they make for a spectacular otherworldly sight.

The entire atmosphere is brimming with activity – everyone is eating and drinking tequila, singing favorite tunes, children are running around and playing and everyone is welcome to join them. If you speak Spanish you’ll find that most families will be happy to tell you stories of their departed relatives and distant ancestors. The locals are delighted to share their traditions with foreigners.

El Dia de Muertos is a day that commemorates those departed and long gone, but with its humorous depictions of death and its effort to remember those who are no longer present, it’s a specific way of celebrating life and the continuum of existence. A short sojourn in Mexico at the turn of October and November will certainly be an experience impossible to forget.

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