Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Death, is a celebration (definitely not a mourning) where family and friends gather to remember and pray for their departed loved ones. People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build decorated ofrendas (altars) to offer the favorite food and drinks, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Soon after we had arrived in Oaxaca we found out that Dia de Muertos is taking place next weekend. Reason enough to linger a little longer than planned.
Being in and around Oaxaca all week we witness the preparations for the festivities from close by. People are building up altars on the streets and in the shops. We see costumed parades accompanied by brass bands and the markets are full of typical Dia de Muertos items like marigolds (the flowers of the dead), sugar skulls and pan de muerto.
Dia de los Muertos allows the dead to live again. It’s actually a three-day celebration that starts on October 31 when families go to the cemetery to clean up and decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. After which the family usually holds all-night vigils while drinking mezcal and telling funny stories about the deceased.
Also children build up altars to invite the souls of deceased infants and children. Therefor November 1 is also referred to as Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). November 2, the official date of Dia de los Muertos, is to honor the deceased adults.
Obviously Oaxaca is a popular place to visit during Dia de los Muertos and all affordable accommodation is fully booked during the weekend. So we could only attend the night of October 31st. Still enough to get a good impression of the festivities.
Dia de los Muertos: Friday the 31st
It’s Friday October 31st. Overnight our hostel’s reception counter has turned into a morbid puppet theater. There’s an altar build up and the staff members are all dressed and made up. On the notice board we read about tonight’s party on the hostel’s rooftop terrace. Unfortunately for us this announcement comes a little late.
Because unaware of the party organized by our own hostel we had already booked a Dia-de-Muertos tour (basically just transport) to visit the cemeteries. At around 8pm we are picked up. The tour brings us to the village of Xoxocotlan, commonly called Xoxo, located 5 km south of Oaxaca city. There are two cemeteries, the Panteon Viejo (old cemetery) and the Panteon Nuevo (new cemetery).
In Xoxo the festivities are in full swing. Sipping from the mezcal brought by the tour organization we enter the first cemetery. It’s a spectacle of lights and the atmosphere is sort of cosy. Most graves are beautifully decorated with marigolds, Calaveras Catrinas (Elegant Skulls) and candles.
Lots of candles.
We stroll around a bit and ask people sitting around the graves about their deceased family members. We learn about the people and practice our Spanish at the same time. Four adult children and their mother are holding a vigil around their father’s grave. It’s a happy gathering and we’re instantly invited for a mezcal. We tell about Holland and joke about Robben’s schwalbe at the recent World Cup match (football is always a good subject) while we savour our drink.
In the meantime two mariachi’s come by and are requested to play a couple of songs for their father. The family sings in full voice, cheerful in one song and emotional in another. It feels special to be part of their intimate celebration.
After about one hour it’s time to visit the other cemetery, the old one. As atmospherical lit as the first one the graves at the old cemetery are (much) more closely spaced which makes it even more intimate. Most likely because of all the mezcals we had with the family Carina has some trouble finding the paths and regularly scrambles over the graves to find her way.
Back on track we notice a family around a simple grave that’s modestly decorated with just marigold leaves and a couple of small candles. At the grave next to them sits an old lady all alone. It’s not all happiness.
In the meantime the mariachi group starts another serenade. Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful celebration of life.
History of Dia de los Muertos
In order to understand a little better where Dia de los Muertos comes from (and how it connects with Halloween), I’ve done some research and as far as I understood it goes something like this:
Dia de los Muertos has its origins in the ancient traditions of the pre-Hispanic indigenous populations when an Aztec goddess with the inexpressible name Mictecacihuatl (try: mik-te-kasi-uatl) reigned as the Lady of the Dead. The celebrations used to be a month-long celebration in August. It was the Catholic Church in the 16th century that changed the dates of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations so that they coincide with their own Allhallowtide (All Hallows’ Eve aka Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day). Which is why today it takes place between October 31 and November 2.
So is Dia de Muertos the Mexican version of Halloween? Definitely not! It’s actually one of the most important holidays celebrated in Mexico (and other Latin American countries) and some Mexicans might even feel offended when it’s simply presented as their version of Halloween. Dia de Muertos is about celebrating and honouring the death while Halloween nowadays revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death”. Hence the costume parties, carved pumpkins, haunted houses and horror stories.
But looking at the origins of both festivals, they certainly have similarities. A bit of googling learns that “Halloween is historically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which comes from the Old Irish for “summer’s end”. At Samhain, it was believed that the spirits needed to be expiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drinks, or portions of the crops, were left for spirits and the souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes. Places were set at the dinner table or by the fire to welcome them.”
Much like the intention of Dia de los Muertos.