This October I’m teaming up with Lauren of Diary of a Spanglish Girl for a feature on Day of the Dead. It’s one of my favourite festivals so when Lauren posted a shout out on her Twitter feed asking if anyone had been to Mexico for Day of the Dead and would like to share their experience with her, I jumped at the chance. You can read the interview here. By the way, Lauren’s also the person behind an excellent Facebook group for travel bloggers called Share Your Travel Blog Post And Connect With The World. If you have a travel blog, it’s well worth signing up as there are plenty of tips and experiences to inspire your future travels. She also has her own Facebook page which is a helpful resource if you love to visit Spain.
The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos as it’s known locally, is a big deal in Mexico, nowhere more so than in the southern city of Oaxaca. Celebrated at the end of October and beginning of November each year, the festival focuses on the dead, and the whole town gets involved in some way. What I didn’t bargain for was how involved I’d get as well.
Arriving a few days before the main celebrations, work was beginning to get underway on the altars. Each family creates an altar to tempt their ancestors’ spirits back to earth. I’d been in touch with Mariana from a small hotel called Las Bugambilias and she’d invited me to join them. In the courtyard, stood a life-sized model of Catrina, the mascot of the Day of the Dead. For a century or so, La Calavera Catrina has been associated with Día de Muertos, thanks to a cartoonist by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada. He was known for satire and drew the rich in fancy hats and feather boas, ridiculing them by implying death was only for the poor.
Catrina takes the form of a skeleton dressed in elegant clothing, dripping in furs or, in this case, feather boas, strings of beads draped around her neck and an elegant cigarette holder in her hand. She was comical rather than creepy, my first hint that this festival has fun as well as respect at its heart.
With a small group of fellow tourists and under Mariana’s expert guidance, we set about creating an altar called an ofrenda. Each of us had been allocated a specific task: some threaded marigold blooms onto strings; others dusted icing sugar skulls in the yard to form a pathway to the altar. My job was to create a centrepiece cross of white carnations and dot it with tiny purple buds. It was harder than it looked to get the blooms just right. Mariana was a perfectionist, but after her intervention, the cross really did look the business. After several hours of preparation, the ofrenda began to take shape. Loose marigold petals defined the path, their pungent aroma pervading the tiny courtyard. The altar itself was decorated with candles, fruit, nuts, incense and brightly coloured bunting. Sepia photographs of family ancestors peeked out from behind yet more marigolds.
Finally, we’d finished, and to celebrate, out came a bottle of Mezcal for a toast, to our efforts and to the ancestors we’d honoured. I’d been asked to bring along family photos and raised a glass to my sorely missed grandparents, their picture wedged between a bicycle candleholder and a lime. I pledged to myself and to them that I would make an effort this time next year to recreate this feeling with my own ofrenda.
The following evening, a group of us headed for the cemetery. On the night of 31st October, residents and visitors alike flock to the old and new cemeteries in Xoxocotlan, on the outskirts of Oaxaca. They were busy with people tending graves, laying marigolds and other offerings and lighting candles in memory of their deceased relatives. Many families would stay all night. I wandered amongst the weathered graves in the packed old cemetery, taking care not to trip over tree roots in the gloom of the candlelight.
Vibrant scarlet gladioli added a splash of colour to the warm amber tones lent by the flickering flames. White canna lilies added grandeur. Vivid orange cempasuchil dominated the scene through sheer weight of numbers. Some graves were a hive of activity; at others, the mood of the relatives was more reflective. Once or twice, a lone mourner wept softly at a graveside, their grief recent and still raw. It was hard not to feel emotional. Yet, I was warmly welcomed, invited to share a spot at several gravesides.
At the new cemetery, there was a party atmosphere. The floral colour palette was enhanced by fluorescent wands that poked out of pushchairs. Lovestruck teenagers sneaked a kiss behind their parents’ backs. Small children munched on sugar skulls and sucked skull lollipops. The sounds of Michael Jackson’s Thriller boomed from a loudspeaker, almost masking the cries of the many hawkers selling snacks and party treats. At the edge of the cemetery, a funfair had been set up with the usual stalls and rides. If it hadn’t been for the tombstones, it would have been easy to forget you were in a cemetery at all.
Comparsas (local groups) parade all night through the streets in costume, celebrating the return of the ancestors with music and dancing. The following evening, the Las Bugambilias team took us out of town to the village of San Agustin Etla, where I’d heard their Muerteada parade was second to none. Anticipation mounted as a crowd gathered in the narrow lane. Eventually the procession reached the village, an eclectic band of ogres, devils and monsters, each with a costume more fantastic than the last. There were ghouls with terrifyingly realistic make up alongside drag queens with pink hair.
The devil carried his scythe, passing a ‘Panteonero’, someone from the pantheon, whose eyeball was missing. Somehow because of the crowds, most were freakish rather than scary, but they were all to be commended for their efforts. As the final performer arrived, in one corner of the village square, a play was being re-enacted. Many of those in the parade weren’t needed, however, and had planted themselves against walls and on kerbstones to have a much-needed drink. I wandered amongst them exchanging pleasantries as far as my limited Spanish would permit, posing for photos and trying on some of the costumes. I was glad I wasn’t wearing one; the weight was impressively heavy. No wonder they’d sat down!
As the evening wore on, a chill settled on the air and the Mezcal came out again. Passing the bottle round, glasses were raised.
“Salud!” Compared to the sombre way we remembered our deceased back home, the Mexicans embraced their spirits, celebrating with them and having fun in the same way they would have done when they were alive. I decided my grandparents, gregarious even in old age, would have given it the thumbs up.
If you’d like to find out more about my experience of Day of the Dead, make sure you check out Lauren’s blog post. For my take on why I prefer Day of the Dead to Halloween, have a read of an earlier post of mine.
Halloween is upon us and with it, the excessive commercialism that has, sadly, come to characterise this holiday. I know some parents make the effort to teach their kids some context, but I suspect many young trick or treaters will have no idea about the origins of the occasion. In fact, trick or treating is thought to have started in Ireland, Wales and Scotland where knocking door to door resulted in the exchange of food for a song. The origins of Halloween go back further: an adaptation of the Celtic pagan festival known as Samhain according to some, while Christians mark it as the evening before All Hallows, an 8th Century attempt to eradicate pagan celebrations. Both however, have something in common: it’s seen as a time when the spirits return and the dead are remembered.
My issue with Halloween, my only issue, is its materialistic bent. Encouraging children to demand treats doesn’t sit well with me. Sure, it’s a bit of fun and what kid doesn’t like dressing up and carving pumpkins? I have no problem with that! However, it seems, as with Christmas, that the true meaning of the occasion has been well and truly buried under all that candy-begging and even harassment of the vulnerable. And if you’re still in any doubt that this is big business, then consider these statistics from a recent Daily Telegraph article:
- £283 million: predicted sales of Halloween-based products in the UK in 2015
- $6.9 billion: total Halloween consumer spending in the US expected for 2015
- $2.1 billion: total amount expected to be spent in the US on candy in 2015
- 3 million: number of pumpkins Tesco expects to sell this Halloween
If you’re a Halloween fan and still reading, and I haven’t well and truly pissed you off by this point, then let me tell you what I prefer about Day of the Dead. Known as Día de Muertos, it’s been part of Mexican culture for three thousand years. I first experienced this festival a few years ago with a visit to Oaxaca and was immediately struck by the way that it blended religion, respect, commemoration and celebration. And let’s not forget that last one. Day of the Dead is anything but dull: there are fancy dress parades, carnival floats and of course, much music, drinking and dancing.
At the heart of the festivities is the dressing of the graves of the ancestors and the construction of homemade altars built to honour their spirits and encourage them to return for a visit. Work starts on these ofrendas in the last few days of October, and every street corner is occupied by flower sellers surrounded by buckets of vibrant orange marigolds known locally as cempasuchil.
- On November 1st, the souls of deceased children are the focus, while on November 2nd, it’s the turn of the adult ancestors. Families visit the cemetery and sit at the graveside to raise a glass of Mezcal and eat a special feast. It’s all at once a poignant, private and public occasion, as visitors are welcomed and encouraged to join in.
Catrina, the elegantly dressed skeleton and iconic figure of Day of the Dead, is everywhere. Clearly, commerce plays a big part in Día de Muertos too: vendors sell everything from sugar skulls to folk art skeletons, Mezcal to garlands of marigold petals. I don’t have a problem with that. But in Mexico it sits side by side with ceremony and tradition, with both given their proper place.
Día de Muertos touched me as a way to remember my grandparents, much loved but long departed. Amid the hectic day to day activities of “life goes on”, over time, I found myself thinking of them less and less. It’s not that I don’t still love them, but I began to worry that as the memories faded I’d one day forget to remember what a significant contribution they made to my life. Their photos are on the altar we made:
When I went to Oaxaca, I took with me their photographs, and, having been privileged to help build an altar at Casa de las Bugambilias, felt a stronger connection to them than I’d had in years. So this year, I’ve built my own altar and on November 2nd, All Souls Day, I’ll raise a glass to toast these very special people and thank them for all they did for me when they were here.
For more photos from the Oaxaca trip, please visit: