Right now I’m sat in a coffee shop by the Santa Domingo Church in the centre of what were huge Day of the Dead celebrations last night, and the night before. There’s one night left of Dia de los Muertos, and my new friends and I are planning on going all out on the costumes to fit in. But what is this Day of the Dead Festival I’m filling my Instagram feed with, and why?
Day of the Dead Festival, or Dia de los Muertos to give it it’s proper Spanish name, is a chance for families and friends to come together and celebrate the lives of their dead loved ones. In Mexican culture it’s believed that on November 1st, at 3pm precisely, souls return to the living for just 24 hours and you must be there to greet them with the pleasures they enjoyed most in life.
For three days – from 31 October to 2 November – Mexicans get together to share stories of friends and family that have passed. The dead souls are not feared, but are warmly welcomed and actively enticed through a variety of Dia de los Muertos traditions.
Is Day of the Dead Festival morbid?
Day of the Dead Festival is fun! It’s a joyous, vibrant and colourful occasion for everyone to get involved in. A carnival of death can be difficult to comprehend but it’s a celebration of what the dead have bought into the living’s lives, not a sadness that they’ve gone. During Day of the Dead Festival even the graveyards are fun places to be – and check out the main Santa Domingo Church above, complete with light projections.
Unlike England, in Mexico, death is talked about, it’s fêted and made light of in every aspect of Mexican culture from art to TV shows.
“To the inhabitant of New York, Paris or London, death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips. The Mexican on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it; it is one of his favourite playthings and his most enduring love.”
– Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude, Nobel Prize for Literature Winner
Best place for Day of the Dead Festival
After a lot of research I decided the best place for me to celebrate Day of the Dead Festival was in Oaxaca City. Oaxaca (pronouced Wahaca, like the restaurant) has a large indigenous population to keep the festival traditions alive and the comparsas (parades) are legendary.
I arrived in Oaxaca on 22nd October so I could see how the city prepared.
Being in Oaxaca is so exciting – a simple walk from my hostel to get some tacos could involve passing by a full on parade complete with fancy dress. Skeletons and La Catrina images are everywhere and the squares are full of people in face paint by night. As I got ready in my hostel beforehand I could hear the trumpets, tubas and fireworks from two comparsas just minutes from my door.
I love Oaxaca.
Preparing for Dia de la Muertos
Preparations for Day of the Dead can start long before November 1st for Mexicans. There’s the food to cook and eat in the home, then there’s the feast to pack up and take to the graves. There’s the costumes to prepare, the Day of the Dead Festival altars to create in the home and at work, and the graves to spruce up and decorate.
Day of the Dead is to Mexicans, what Christmas is to much of England or Thanksgiving in the USA – children who’ve moved away for education or work will always try their hardest to return home to be with their families. There’s a lot of Day of the Dead traditions to follow and plan for the big day.
Cemeteries during Day of the Dead Festival
When celebrating the dead, it helps to have a few deceased around, making the graveyards in Mexico the perfect place for the party. They’re a huge part of the festivities. Mexicans will set up all night vigils and stay with the graves for the 24 hours, sometimes even longer. It’s not a morbid vigil though, they’ll take all their carefully prepped food along, some Mezcal, a few beers, blankets and even music. Mariachi bands parade through and people stand around chatting and enjoying the food stalls that pop up especially for the occasion.
Xoxocotlan Cemetery is one of the most important graveyards in Oaxaca, and hosts a huge celebration on the 31 October. I went in the morning to see them prepping, and again from 11pm-2am to join in the party. It was still going strong when I left!
Day of the Dead countdown
Although Day of the Dead Festival is celebrated at the same time as Halloween, the two festivals are very different. Day of the Dead is a time for family, both dead and alive. The traditions of Halloween are definitely included in the Festival celebrations though, with trick or treaters, fancy dress and fireworks.
In the cemeteries the day is spent preparing the grave for the soul’s arrival – painting, flowers, offerings – and the evening is spent keeping vigil. In Oaxaca City there are parades of music and fancy dress for all ages throughout the day and into the night.
In my hostel – Casa del Angel – they set up an altar, we drank Mezcal, beat up a piñata, ate tostadas, painted our faces and sat by a campfire on the roof terrace.
At home families go to each other’s houses to pay their respects at the altars. Food is cooked, eaten and shared and knocked back with a drink or two. Then the whole extended family will make the pilgrimage to the cemetery to spend the night.
The first day of the Day of the Dead Festival celebrates the souls of dead children. It’s believed the souls of children return to earth first, followed by the adults the next day.
Throughout town there are celebrations all day: skull painting classes, cinema screenings, parades and sand sculptures. At 3pm it’s believed the souls arrive, and stay for 24 hours until 3pm tomorrow. This is what the festival has all built up to.
The festivities from the day before carry on. There are more comparsas, dress up and the parties at the graveyards are still going strong. I went down to the Panteon Central in Oaxaca City and just like the Xoxocotlan Cemetery there were food stalls set up, people were still laying flowers and there was a general air of celebration.
Dia de la Muertos
Day of the Dead Festival is a big party hosted by the living for the dead. The wealth of traditions and deep meanings come together so Mexicans can celebrate life and death. Dia de los Muertos is a way to accept death, know that it will happen to everyone, and to laugh about the fact that there’s no way of getting away from it so you might as well honour it.