Day of the Dead, a long standing tradition in Central Mexico, has become a cool celebration in the last few years. Hollywood, Frida Kahlo and José Guadalupe Posadas are to be blamed.
Before Spaniards arrived into the continent, local peoples such as Aztecs, Mayans, Totonacos, Purepechas, etc, had up to 4 days in a year to commemorate death. You read it right: not life, but death. It was considered to be the beginning of an after life.
Spaniard priests tried to convert locals into the Christian religion. They allowed natives to keep one of these ancient holidays, as well as it was mixed with Christian values. So, a celebration almost coinciding with the Christian All Saints Day was chosen. Today we celebrate the eve of 2nd of November as the Day of the Dead just after the All Saints Day (1st November).
What does it represent?
For centuries it had been mainly an indigenous holiday to honour, pray and remember the departed relatives. In Central Mexico, Day of the Dead never vanished from the local calendar. However, since the 1960’s, there has been an official effort to strengthen this holiday as a national one. In fact, nowadays it is a bank holiday and has become mainstream in other areas of the country with little indigenous populations (North Mexico).
Originally it was a day to remember unborn childs and dead people, but most importantly to connect with the death gods (Mictantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl). “Mictli” as you might imagine means dead in Nahuatl language.
Today is a holiday to visit departed relatives in graveyards and to offer them comfort when they “return” to this life for a single day.
Tradition says that departed relatives come back from the after life to visit their families. In order to greet them, living people set ofrendas in their own homes or graveyards where their relative is buried. These offerings are altars with food and things the dead relative used to love in their previous live.
Stuff that is never missing from an ofrenda:
Where to go to live this celebration?
For years I personally liked visiting Cucuchuchu, a very small town by the Pátzcuaro Lake (Michoacán State). However, it has turned to be so popular that the cemetery is now filled with tourists from every corner of the world snapping and flashing over altars and people.
Pátzcuaro, also located in Michoacán State, is a larger city and home to very festive celebrations. It is about 1hr from Morelia by road (4hrs from Mexico City or 3 hrs from Guadalajara). In fact it is the starting point for a visit to Cucuchuchu. Many other small towns in the Purepecha region of Michoacán are less visited by tourists and retain the old tradition more intimately. Capula cemetery is beautifully decorated the day before with marigold flowers. Angahuan sees its streets decorated with marigold flowers preparing for the celebrations.
Morelia, Michoacán capital, is a great base for exploring all these towns. It offers great hotels and a charming colonial district. However, the week around Day of the Dead is considered high season so booking ahead is a must.
Oaxaca is also a very pleasant city to live a very authentic Day of the Dead, both in the cemeteries and the public areas. Finally, if you are staying in Mexico City and do not have time to get out of the city, you should now that Mixquic and Milpa Alta, within the urban metroplex, also offer very traditional celebrations though smaller than those in Michoacán or Oaxaca.
New Day of the Dead
Currently, tradition has spread out of the private sphere. It is now very common to see altars for the dead in public places such as schools, universities, bank branches, libraries, shopping centres, office buildings, etc.
La Catrina is one of the icons of this day. She is a skulled-lady dress in very fashionable outfit. It was the creation of a José Guadalupe Posadas, a celebrated cartoonist at the turn of the 20th century. His cartoons dealt with dead during the Revolution War and combined them with the posh atmosphere of the well-to-do in the Mexican society. His designs have turned into the most popular image of a pleasant and joyful dead.
Frida Kahlo actually did nothing to represent this day. However, her empowering image as a cultural icon has led many to use her art to represent dead in a more fun and charismatic way.
Hollywood has also embraced these celebrations. A number of new films are using this subject in a glorious way. “The Book of Life” is a colourful representation of the tradition. “Coco”, soon to be premiered, is Pixar’s new film on the subject.
To an extent, Hollywood has even influenced the new Day of the Dead. “Spectre”, the latest of the 007 agent saga, opens with a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. There had never been such a parade in any part of the country before the film. However, last year, Mexico City’s authorities decided to recreate annually that parade for touristic purposes. Hollywood indeed created a new tradition!
Today it is very common to see people dressing up for Halloween (two days before Day of the Dead) as catrinas or other Day of the Dead motifs. Talk about a new cultural global village.
So, what are you waiting?
Day of the Dead is a great opportunity to make a visit to Mexico and extend it to visit its beaches, archaeological sites, nature treasures and enjoy its culinary heritage. Take a look to a number of tours available.