Visitors headed to Mexico at the beginning of November used to be startled and surprised by at sight of streets adorned with seemingly macabre decorations. City streets would come to life with papier-mâché skeletons, children eating candy skulls, shops selling marzipan coffins and locals going about their days dressed in skeleton costumes.
Today, however, Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is one of the main reasons people flock to this Mexico this time of year. The annual event is a remembrance of departed souls, encapsulating the country’s upbeat treatment of immortality and making it one of the world's most universally familiar festivals. And as strange as the holiday may sound to newcomers, Mexicans and visitors alike take this event as a time to celebrate life, too. The event is full of music, food and family, and has even been designated an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by Unesco since 2003.
The elaborately costumed revelry of Día de Muertos even extends to Mexico's cemeteries © MARIO VAZQUEZ / Getty Images
The Día de Muertos tradition
In a belief system inherited from the Aztecs, Mexicans believe their dead are lurking in Mictlan, a kind of spiritual waiting room, and they can return to their homes at this time of year. It originally fell around August, but the Christian conquistadors, hoping to assimilate the heathen holiday through their favoured tactic of cultural mestizaje (mixing), moved it to the day after All Saints' Day.
While Día de Muertos takes place on the night of 1 Nov on through the next day, festivities celebrating the event can last a full week starting in October. In Mexico City, for example, locals participate in a colorful parade called Grand Procession of the Catrinas. These parades highlight the holiday’s most famous skeleton character (who represents an artfully aristocratic version of Death herself popularized in art by Diego Rivera) called La Calavera Catrina, in late October as a lead-in to main events.
Día de muertos altar with pan de muerto © Romana Lilic / Getty Images
How locals prepare for the holiday
To get ready for Día de Muertos, families make ways to help spirits find their way home and be welcomed, starting with an arch made of bright-yellow marigolds – a symbolic doorway from the underworld. An altar is erected and piled high with offerings to the invisible visitors: flowers, ribbons, coloured candles, tamales (steam-cooked cornmeal dough), fruit and corn. Two important additions are a container of water (spirits arrive thirsty after their journey), and pan de muerto (bread of the dead). This loaf is made with egg yolks, fruits and tequila or mezcal, and is adorned with, or shaped as, a symbol of death. Families also cook the favorite dishes of their deceased loved ones.
The event climaxes with a visit to the cemetery. There might be a funfair en route, with neon-lit rides and stands selling crucifix waffles and cooked cactus snacks. Families will devote a day to cleaning the graves, decorating them with candles and flores del cempasúchil (marigold flowers of the dead), having picnics and dancing to mariachi bands. By now, the streets are full of papier-mâché and papel picado skeletons in dresses, jewellery, flowery boas and hats. A cigarette dangles jauntily from a white hand, a hoop earring hangs against a bare jawbone.
2016's parade in Mexico City © SEASTOCK / Getty Images
Explore the holiday in southern Mexico
While traditionally Día de Muertos is a family-oriented celebration, large-scale celebrations take place all over the country. Their heartland is southern Mexico, where indigenous culture is strongest. Mixquic, a city that was once part of the Aztec empire and lies southeast of Mexico City, is known as 'City of the Dead' for its procession that calls at shrines to the deceased; its history is said to have an impact on how it celebrates the holiday. Oaxaca, where there are graveyard tours and a 'best altar' competition, and which boasts week-long festivities, is another popular destination for those interested in experiencing the holiday firsthand. Travelers there should have no problem stumbling upon street decorations and parades.
Of course, Mexico City also has a can’t-miss celebration. Last year, it held the first-ever ‘Día de Muertos’ parade, drawing more than 100,000 people to its streets to celebrate an unforgettably colourful festival. The 2017 parade took place on 28 October (always on the Saturday preceding the holiday) at the Zócalo in the city’s historic district. Meanwhile in Puebla, a city southeast of Mexico City known for its culinary scene, colonial architecture and arts culture, visitors can attend festivities at museums, theaters and other arts venues. There’s even a day-long conference on the traditions and customs around Day of the Dead.
A Día de muerto celebration on the street in Guanajuato © Darryl Leniuk / Getty Images
Northern Mexico spots for festivities
If you do find yourself north of the nation’s capital, head to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, a destination popular with expats and tourists, that hosts a ‘La Calaca’ festival through 5 November. On Janitzio Island, Lake Pátzcuaro, the arrival of flower-covered, candlelit canoes begins a nightlong vigil-come-party. On the other side of the country in the Maya region, Day of the Dead is known as Hanal Pixan, or ‘feast for the souls’. Mérida (in Yucatán) and Pac Chen in (Quintana Roo) are not to be missed. Pac Chen hosts a parade called Paseo de las ánimas or Passage of the Souls, in which more than 50,000 people gather to recreate a route that souls take in the city, hundreds of altars placed along the way.
Although you have to work hard to reach small villages and organise accommodation there, it's worth getting out of the main towns and cities to catch more traditional festivities. Many indigenous towns will celebrate Día de Muertos quite differently, but the differences often comes down to what offerings are placed at the altar – from religious imagery to mezcal. No matter where you decide to celebrate this one-of-a-kind tradition, though, you’re bound to have an unforgettable experience.
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