Experiencing Day of the Dead

A guide to Mexico’s colorful celebrations honoring the deceased

By Nanae Watabe, Travel Writer

Felicity—a 20-something travel lover—has teamed up with her friends from around the world to provide readers with local, insider knowledge of today’s most awe-inspiring destinations. Through writing, photography, and video, they’ll share the best tricks and tips for experiencing a place authentically and getting off the beaten path.

Nanae Watabe—a native of Mexico City—answers all my questions about Día de los Muertos: the history behind it; how visitors can respectfully participate and observe; and where in Mexico is best to experience these colorful and unique celebrations.

A skeleton wearing a colourful dress on a balcony in MexicoImage: Shutterstock

When is the Day of the Dead?

Día de los Muertos falls on November 2nd (All Souls Day on the Catholic calendar).

Piles of marigolds and a skeleton made of sugar in MexicoImages: Mark Miller

What is the festival about?

In Mexico, mourning those who have passed is considered disrespectful. Since death is part of life’s continuum, the Día de los Muertos is meant to celebrate both life and death. This day of rituals is a beautiful fusion of Catholicism and Indigenous (particularly Aztec) beliefs; writer Claudio Lomnitz describes it as a “fearless intimacy with death.” It’s a time to celebrate those who have died, and invite them to celebrate with the rest of their community. They are guided back to enjoy a feast with their living family members, and are honored with altars, parties, and parades. These unique festivities are part of the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and absolutely worth a trip (or several) to Mexico.

A man and woman lighting candles at a grave in Mexico during Day of the DeadImage: Shutterstock

How do people celebrate?

First and foremost, people celebrate by putting up ofrendas (altars) in their homes and/or at the cemetery where their family members are buried. The ofrendas are usually elaborate, and include pictures of the deceased, their favorite foods, the famous cempasuchil (Mexican marigolds), decorated sugar skulls, special bread called pan de muerto, and a hanging of papel picado (colorful paper flags).

An altar for Day of the Dead in MexicoImage: Shutterstock

Beyond these ofrendas, entire communities celebrate by putting on parades; Oaxaca’s is widely renowned, as Mexico City’s, where I live. It takes place on the weekend before the Day of the Dead.

A large float of a skeleton wearing a hat in a parade in MexicoImage: Shutterstock

For public events like parades, many people dress up like Catrinas, the fancy skeletons first etched by Jose Guadalupe Posada and later reinterpreted by the prominent painter Diego Rivera.

An old drawing of a skeleton wearing a hat with flowersImage: Shutterstock

I’d like to point out that although many of these parades and parties coincide with American Halloween, they are not equivalent holidays. While there are symbolic skulls and graveyards involved, Día de los Muertos does not specifically celebrate death; rather, it honors the lives of those who’ve passed on with love, happiness, and laughter.

Women wearing colourful dresses dancing in a parade in MexicoImage: Shutterstock

For example, each year there are calaveras literarias (epitaphs) written to mock or roast a person. Humor is a big part of the Day of the Dead, and it’s especially prevalent in these poems. Kids are even asked to write them at school so they have a greater and more relaxed understanding of death.

Children in colourful costumes with their faces painted like skulls in MexicoImage: Shutterstock

What are some things visitors should know in order to observe/partake respectfully?

With regards to these festivities, boundaries vary depending on the family or person celebrating; generally speaking, I would recommend giving people their space and observing from a distance. With the exception of parades (which are photographed like crazy by everyone), always ask permission before taking a photo. And, as is always a great idea before traveling, do some research and master some basic Spanish ahead of time. Knowledge is power, and in this case, also shows respect.

Women in colourful dresses and skull masks in MexicoImage: Shutterstock

What do you like/appreciate most about the Day of the Dead?

I’ve always liked the Indigenous stories and rituals behind these celebrations. For example, the xoloitzcuintli (a particularly beloved breed of hairless Mexican dog) is a precious and respected being for the Aztecs because it was a gift from the god Xolotl, the god of Death, to guide the souls of the dead travelling to the underworld or Mictlan. As life and death are dualities that exist due to the same opposition or continuum, the legend says that Xolotl created this being from a splinter of the Bone of Life, where all of Life was created, as a gift for the living world as a guide when deceased in the world of the spirits. These dogs were sacrificed and buried along with their owners as their companions during life continuing on to the next world.

Three hairless Mexican dogs standing in a parkImage: Shutterstock

Secondly—simple as it may be—I love eating pan de muerto. It’s a special sweet bread decorated with skulls and bones that is available throughout October and into early November. There are even pan de muerto contests amongst chefs and restaurants! My friends and I gather to do our own judging, and this year’s winner was from Los Tulipanes, a bakery that makes incredible breads in general.

An overhead shot of a sugary bun with a cup of coffeeImage: Shutterstock

My go-to pan de muerto, however, has always been Panaderia Rosetta’s; it’s fluffy, flavored with rosemary, and has just the right amount of orange blossom water (the essential ingredient, in my opinion). Over the past few years, these breads have been taken to a whole new level—they’re stuffed with a variety of delicious ingredients like nutella, cajeta (caramelized goat’s milk), chocolate, flavored whipped cream, rompope (mexican eggnog), and dulce de leche. When dipped in hot chocolate, it makes for a sugar rush at its best!

A basket of sugary buns filled with caramel in MexicoImage: Shutterstock

Since I’m not the biggest fan of crowds, gathering with my friends to judge different breads is great. After all, sharing is caring!

Where is the best place in Mexico to observe the festivities?

Oaxaca, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Chiapas, and the Yucatan Peninsula are all amazing places to be at the beginning of November. Wherever you are in Mexico, though, I definitely recommend visiting a cemetery in the evening, though don’t pick the most popular one or you’ll spend your entire time waiting to get in!

A woman laying marigolds on a grave in MexicoImage: Shutterstock

In addition to the ofrendas, colorful parades, and sweet bread, in Mexico City I also recommend heading to Jamaica Market just to see the mountains of cempasuchil.

A pile of bright orange marigolds in MexicoImage: Shutterstock

After Día de los Muertos celebrations are over, the petals are scattered to form a trail so the dead can find their way back to the cemetery. I also recommend visiting the Anahuacalli Museum to see their truly spectacular ofrenda; it changes each year, and in 2019 Jean Paul Gaultier was a creative collaborator. The museum itself is a work of art and therefore also worth checking out—I highly recommend Diego Rivera’s pre-Hispanic collection.

The interior of a modern museum in MexicoImage: Shutterstock

I hope this guide has given you a better understanding of the rituals and history behind the beautiful Día de los Muertos. Now be sure to visit Mexico so you can experience it in person!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nanae Watabe—who considers herself a professional eater—is known to her friends as ‘Japexican’ because of her mixed Mexican and Japanese heritage. Born and raised in Mexico City, she’s spent time in Japan; Canada, where she studied Psychology and Sociology at the University of British Columbia; and Italy, where she completed her Masters degree at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. She’s since been involved in various food related projects, and especially loves educating people about wild mushrooms and the amazing funghi kingdom in general.

 

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Las Alcobas

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