Since I first heard about Day of the Dead in Mexico, I always wanted to go there in early November to witness these festivities for myself. Definitely one for my Bucket List and our spending 5 days in Oaxaca during this period was amazing and did not disappoint in any way. Far from it: I didn’t want it to end.
So 1st a few admin points. Is it called Día de Muertos, Día de los Muertos or even Día de la Muerte? You see different permutations but the one used in Oaxaca was definitely Día de Muertos so that’s good enough for me.
Next: which day exactly is the Day of the Dead? Again, this seemed a little confused: was it the 1st or the 2nd November? To be honest we were having way too much fun to care and in Oaxaca, the party and festivities stretched over several days so it really didn’t matter. Technically, the answer is 2nd November (although ironically, we found this to be one of the quietest days of the whole period).
Some of the goodies on sale in the market including caramelised pumpkins, pan de muerto and sugar skulls
So how is it celebrated? First, there is the all-important trip to the markets to buy everything necessary for the days ahead, especially for the altars that families build in their homes. We were lucky enough to be taken by the owners of our hostel to the huge Central de Abastos market in Oaxaca which, at this time of the year, was crazily busy with everyone loading up on flowers, foods and other decorations: a bit like a Christmas shopping frenzy but on a much larger scale. I soon lost count of the number of return trips to the car that were made to off load the shopping we had bought “so far”, so that the family had their hands free to continue to shop for more. It seemed that you could never have enough marigolds or chocolate apparently: at first, Julietta (our hostel owner) thought 4 kilos of chocolate was enough but no, that was clearly wrong, she soon went back for a couple more “just to make sure there would be enough”.
L: Sugar cane; R: You can never have enough marigolds
Back in the hostel that evening, we were privileged enough to help the family make their very own Day of the Dead altar. These altars comprise of an arch (ah – ha, that was what the hugely long (and completely impractical to transport) pieces of sugar cane we had bought in the market were for) covered in marigolds, known as flowers of death or cempasúchil. This is essentially a symbolic doorway from the underworld and, additionally, the path to the altar is strewn with yet more marigold petals to help the dead find their way easily.
L: The altar we helped build: R: an altar in a shop in central Oaxaca
The altar is then piled high with offerings to the invisible visitors – flowers, skulls (both sugar skulls and ceramic ones), candles, fruit (both fresh and caramelised), chocolate, pan de muerto, mezcal (the local tipple which is similar to tequila), the local speciality food (black mole) as well as any other favourite dish of the deceased, whose framed photos are also carefully placed on the altar. So this is what we had been buying in the market – all the food was for these ghostly visitors and none was going to be consumed by the (living) family. I guess the process of making the altar was a bit like decorating a Christmas tree but took a lot longer and felt like it was done with more pride and precision although perhaps some of the precision went a little out of the window as we were plied with a few shots of mezcal during the process.
In terms of timing, as I understood it, on 31 October, the “angelitos” come (these are the little souls or souls of deceased children) while on 1 November, the adult souls come back and stay until 2 November. The offerings on the altars are put there to sustain these souls who return to spend some time in the world of the living again.
L: The big altar in the Zocalo; R: another altar near Santo Domingo with local kids posing
It’s not only in private houses that you find these altars: unless you are somehow walking around with your eyes tightly closed, you will see that they are pretty much everywhere – in hotels, restaurants, shops etc and also there were larger altars on the Zócalo (main square) and in other public gardens and spaces.
L: Ceramic statues (in an exhibition); R: papier mache skeleton on the street
As well as the altars, you also see the impressive sand tapestries (tapetes de arena) that have also been carefully set out as part of this festival. Apparently sand tapestries also form part of normal death traditions in Mexico: when someone dies, a sand tapestry is made in their home which usually depicts a religious image or a preferred saint of the deceased. However, the Day of the Dead sand tapestries can be more whimsical featuring not only religious figures but also cartoon like skeletons etc. They are a form of art in themselves and in various barrios or neighbourhoods of Oaxaca, competitions were being held for best sand tapestry. All rather impressive stuff.
Yes these are made of sand!
The decorations don’t stop there – as we wandered around Oaxaca, we saw Day of the Dead related decorations everywhere from skeletons climbing lamp-posts, to brightly coloured skulls as well as streamers of brightly coloured tissue paper (papel picado) with intricate shapes cut out to represent air. On some streets, there were also papier maché skeletons, each carefully decked out with jewellery, hats and feather boas etc. The amount of work that had been put into all these decorations was impressive. What a dazzling and colourful display. Simply wonderful.