For me, the highlight of the Day of the Dead celebrations was a trip to the cemeteries, both during the day and at night.
Visiting during the day was a calmer experience: we saw families taking the time to spruce up (by cleaning and painting) the family graves and then decorating them with yet more – yes, you’ve guessed it – marigold flowers and candles.
At night-time, there’s more of a carnival atmosphere. Outside each cemetery, we saw lots of stalls selling food, decorations and other trinkets and there were even stages set up where bands were playing. I had read that at some cemeteries there are even fun fairs but we didn’t see any of those ourselves.
The cemeteries at night are simply magical: the graves are all beautifully decorated and lit by a thousand candles flickering away against a haze of incense. Clearly some family members are very proud of their graves and keen to have photos of their handiwork taken; other people however spend time in reflection and/or praying while remembering their passed loved ones. But to be fair, it’s a pretty noisy affair generally – this is not really a time of peace and solitude. True there are a lot of tourists but there are also a lot of families sitting on or in front of the graves, eating and toasting the dead with mezcal while listening to the mariachi bands who are wandering around making a few pesos serenading the families and the dead. Laughter abounds: this is not a sad festival by any stretch of the imagination. Unfortunately the general cemetery in the centre of Oaxaca was closed at night (it got damaged in the 2017 earthquake so they limited visitor numbers this year) but wandering round both the Panteón Viejo and Panteón Nuevo (Old and New Cemeteries) in Xoxocotlan at night was a unique and wonderful experience.
Away from the cemeteries, the party continues. There was a whole programme of events put on in various locations throughout Oaxaca on impromptu stages – from theatrical productions, traditional bands, pop music to performances by school orchestras etc.
Not a bad venue for an outdoor concert!
And then just as you thought you might have had your fill for a night, you would turn a corner and bump (literally) into a comparsa. These are carnival like processions of people dressed up with painted faces dancing along to lots of music. They seem to be organised on an impromptu basis but we were lucky enough to run into quite a few of them. A lot of people (including many tourists) joined in with the fun by painting their faces too: the facial “art work” lasted a bit longer on those who had their faces painted in the evening rather than first thing in the morning when they then had to try not to touch their face at any point on what were really some rather warm days: it’s fair to say we saw one or two smudged faces around! But no one really cared: it was such a good humoured festival despite all the crowds.
L: An evening (adult) comparsa: R: a children’s comparsa
No wonder the whole event has been recognised as a UNESCO cultural event.
And finally there was one of my favourite moments and a bit of well needed “down time” at the degustactión de pan y chocolate when I happily munched on the pan de muerto and drank the most delicious hot chocolate: after all Oaxaca is the centre of chocolate production in Mexico. Pan de Muerto is bread which is basically made with egg yolks, fruits and mezcal. For the rest of the year, it is known as pan de yema (yolk bread), but for Día de Muertos, it is shaped into round loaves or into the shapes of corpses and decorated with a little head (“carita”) which we believed was edible (if not actually that tasty)! Dipping this bread into the hot chocolate was great and I would highly recommended it.