What is Día de Muertos and How is it Celebrated in Mexico?

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Monday 29th October 2018 – Day 29 of Blogtober

As the festivities of Halloween arrive, it’s important to not forget about a very important festival happening over in Mexico, Día de Muertos. I’m very excited to share with you an interview with travel writer, Julia Hammond, all about celebrating Día de Muertos in Mexico.

Strangely, the first I really learnt about Día de Muertos was the Disney movie, Coco. It wasn’t until I watched the movie that I gained a base knowledge about the festival. I do believe the movie furthered Mexico’s representation and introduced a lot of people to the festival.

Although it seems very similar with the skulls and autumnal look, Día de Muertos is not to be mistaken with Halloween. They truly are completely different and Día de Muertos isn’t at all spooky. The deceased are not to be feared, they are to be welcomed. 

Día de Muertos is a major part of the Hispanic culture and it’s a very interesting festival that happens during Autumn. Although it isn’t widely celebrated in Spain, I wanted to cover it during October.

Those who celebrate believe that at midnight on October 31, deceased children will return to reunite with their families on November 1st and the souls of deceased adults will make a visit on November 2nd.

The towns of Mexico come to life with colourful ofrendas, which is a shrine, in honour of their loved ones. They’re decorated with flowers, candles and pan de muerto, which is a sweetened bread made specifically for Día de Muertos.

Day of the Dead is a social holiday that spills out into the streets and plazas, long into the night. Dressing up as a skeleton is pretty much compulsory and most people will paint their faces to resemble skulls. Many people will wear shells or loud jewellery to add to the experience. The idea is, the louder they are, the more likely they are to wake up their deceased relatives.

To get more of an idea about Dia de Muertos, how it’s celebrated and what it’s actually about, I’ve sought out some first-hand knowledge for you. Want answers to all those questions, such as how does Halloween and Dia de Muertos differ? Is Pan de Muertos seriously the best thing since sliced bread? Isn’t it morbid at the cemetery? We’re going to find out.


Celebrating Día de Muertos in Mexico

Although I’d love to go, I don’t have the first-hand knowledge of what it’s like at Día de Muertos. So, in order to give you (and myself!) a better guide to the Día de Muertos celebrations. I was lucky enough to interview Julia, a fantastic writer who really brings the story to life! or to death?

Julia has also posted a first-hand account of Dia de Muertos over on her blog, https://juliahammond.blog, which I recommend giving a read.

What a great experience to have celebrated Día de Muertos in Mexico. What part of Mexico did you celebrate it and when?

I chose Oaxaca for my Día de Muertos trip as I’d heard it was one of the best places in Mexico to experience the festival with lots of activities on offer. I’d been working as a teacher for 20 years before my half term dates coincided with the festivities, finally realising my dream in 2012.

How would you say Día de Muertos differs from Halloween?

It’s very different. The way Halloween is now celebrated is often very commercial and there’s such a focus on trick or treating that I fear the meaning gets lost. With the Day of the Dead, it seems to me to be much more about family and respect, with a focus on commemorating your ancestors and remembering what they meant. Día de Muertos takes place on 1st and 2nd November; the first day is dedicated to those who died as children and the second is when the spirits of the adult ancestors return.

Can you describe the atmosphere before, during and after Día de Muertos?

The atmosphere alters depending on what stage of Día de Muertos you’re at. There’s a daytime parade through downtown Oaxaca which is quite formal, with marching bands, schools and community groups all represented. Markets set up in the plazas selling sugar skulls and other merchandise – while it’s not as commercial as Halloween, buying stuff is certainly not frowned upon. The ofrenda preparations are thoughtful in tone and in the old cemetery the mood was one of reflection. But the party really starts with the comparsas, or night parades, which are raucous and wild – in a good way! I went out to an outlying village called San Agustin Etla to watch its Muerteada. Crowds of people had come out from Oaxaca and lined the narrow lanes. There was a magnificent procession of people dressed in elaborate costumes, with the Grim Reaper and countless monsters, ogres and ever more gruesome figures. Put it this way, there’d been a run on artificial blood down at the store!

I’ve always loved the idea of the candy skulls, they look so intricate. It sounds a fantastic parade! What about an ofrenda, did you build one? If so, what did you put on it and what did it signify?

One of my favourite parts of Día de Muertos was the opportunity to build an ofrenda, part of several days of preparation for the main event. Mariana at Las Bugambilias stages a family altar but those staying at the hotel are invited to join in. Some of the group were involved in stringing marigold flowers to make long garlands, others used a skull template and icing sugar to create a path. I had the job of finishing a flower cross from white chrysanthemums and tiny purple buds – very fiddly but it looked beautiful in the end. I’d been asked to bring family photos for the ofrenda so my grandparents all made it onto the altar alongside food and the obligatory Mezcal. Together, all of us created a path out of flower petals; it’s designed to lead your ancestors to the ofrenda and show them that you haven’t forgotten them.

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COPYRIGHT JULIA HAMMOND
View more about Casa de Las Bugambilias here: http://lasbugambilias.com

I’ll make a note to look it up if it ever coincides with our holidays. Did you visit the cemetery – what was it like?

Perhaps the most special moment of the trip came when our small group visited the cemeteries of Xoxocotlan, located on the edge of Oaxaca. Pretty much as soon as we arrived, we arranged a meeting place for later and dispersed. I wandered along pathways lined with weathered graves adorned with scarlet gladioli and heaps of marigolds. Families were cleaning graves and lighting candles which bathed everything in a soft light. They’d created somewhere very spiritual, and yet those same people welcomed me over to take photographs without making me feel like I was intruding. The adjacent new cemetery was better lit and much noisier, with loud music playing and hawkers selling glow sticks, balloons and candy canes. There was a definite party atmosphere which was a huge contrast to the first cemetery.

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COPYRIGHT JULIA HAMMOND

It sounds absolutely magical and such a welcoming festival. Did you paint your face as a skull? What did it signify?

No, it didn’t seem to be a thing (for spectators at least) and most people hadn’t dressed up either. But I did see that some of the participants in the parades wore masks and fabulous fancy dress costumes. The skull comes from the character Catrina. La Calavera Catrina was created a century or so ago by the Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. He drew a cartoon which satirised the rich; dressing them in fancy hats and feather boas he implied that death was just for the poor and the rich would live forever. It’s since been adopted as a mascot of Día de Muertos and you see Catrinas everywhere.

Catrina
COPYRIGHT JULIA HAMMOND

Interesting! The Catrinas look so intricate and beautiful – I had no idea of the back story. I’m always intrigued about Pan de Muertos too, I’m considering making my own this Dia de Muertos. Did you try Pan de Muertos? What was it like?

I did, but I can’t say it was memorable. It uses the same dough as the city’s regular bread but is decorated differently. I would say that Oaxaca is well known for its food, though, and I had plenty of delicious meals and local specialities while I was there.

How did the festival make you feel?

I was emotional throughout the festival, particularly at the old cemetery and while building the ofrenda. I felt a powerful connection to my grandparents who I’d been very close to when they were alive and it made me re-evaluate how I honour their memory. I had travelled to Mexico on my own for the festival and was glad to have chosen to do that, as it left me free to commemorate my own family members in private. If I’d been part of a tour group I wouldn’t have been able to achieve that.

What was the morning after Día de Muertos like?

Dead – if you’ll pardon the pun! The comparsas finish really late and so there are a lot of people sleeping in and nursing hangovers on the morning of 3rd November.

What did you like most about the festival?

I loved that it was an immersive experience. Day of the Dead isn’t a spectator event, like some carnivals are. You need to get involved to understand the significance of the different aspects of the festivities. I was fortunate to find a small family-run hotel, Las Bugambilias, which ran a series of events. I left it too late to book a room, but they let me join in anyway.

Do you think celebrating Día de Muertos in Mexico is a ‘bucket list’ activity? Can it be a part of respectful tourism or should it be left alone in fear of commercialisation and misrepresentation?

I do think you have to be careful if you are planning to attend Día de Muertos that you do so in the right mindset. It’s not Halloween and although people buy Catrina candy and enjoy the party, it’s important to remember that for the recently deceased, it’s a terribly sad occasion. I noticed there were some graves where a single person sat, lost in thought, and tried to give them as much space to grieve as I could. I think it’s really important to be led by someone local so that you don’t unwittingly cause offence. I was extremely lucky to stumble upon Mariana, Adriana and René of Las Bugambilias. Without them, I wouldn’t have got nearly as much out of my trip as I did.

Do you still celebrate Día de Muertos?

I’ve continued to build an ofrenda each year since learning about them in Oaxaca. Because it’s cold in the UK in November, I have to use artificial flowers. I also swapped out the Mezcal for my grandparents’ favourite drinks: rum and stout. But other than that it’s quite similar.


Take a look at their finished ofrenda, isn’t it stunning? It is a work of art. The flowers are blooming and autumnal, the food and drink, the ornaments. You can tell how much time and effort has been put into it. You can really see how important Dia de Muertos is to the Hispanic culture. It’s clearly a beautiful festival to remember and honour members of the family who are no longer with us.

The finished altar
COPYRIGHT JULIA HAMMOND

Don’t forget to follow Julia on all her socials below to keep up to date with where and what she gets up to next: Twitter, Blog, and Facebook. You can also have a look at her website, which is filled with beautiful photos of her past travels and also her work that has been published in magazines and online.

What do you think? Would you like to get involved with Día de Muertos? It’s on my list!

Hasta luego,
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Hola! I'm Lauren ("Loh - run") — A twenty-something, engaged, English girl living on the Costa Blanca, obsessed with travel, love and elephants.

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