Day of the Dead or Day of the Living

by Natacha Cullinan

Long ago, even before Hernan Cortes planned the trip that would change the face of the New World and dictate the importance of the Spanish language across the globe, Mexican indigenous tribes would celebrate birth, and its counterpart, death, in a ritualistic manner combining food, dance and music to show thanks to their deities. Interning abroad in Mexico is one of the best ways to experience and understand the surreal celebrations of the Day of the Dead. Whether your internship placement in Mexico is related to history, anthropologytheater, or another discipline, you'll find these festivities endlessly fascinating, and learn that celebrating death isn't so different from celebrating life. 

Day of the Dead, Mexico

This ritual has changed very little since it begun, some 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. Mexican culture and its people were composed of the Aztecs, Olmecs, Toltecs and Mayans, to name a few. All of these tribes would celebrate the end of life with a feast, instead of fearing death as is so common in Western cultures. As pagan beliefs laid claim to there being an afterlife, death was merely seen as the end of a cycle on Earth and an entrance into the next. And so, hordes of villagers and tribesmen would gather to celebrate this day, in homage to their loved ones, young and old.

In Aztec times, this would be typically celebrated around August, for a whole month. However, with the integration of the Christian calendar, the celebration now takes place between the 1st and 2nd of November, to tie in with All Saints’ Day. The 1st of November is a day dedicated to the angels (El Día de los Angelitos), with the crossover to the Día de los Muertos happening overnight and well into the next day. On the 1st of the month, children are celebrated and venerated, as families give thanks to younger generations. Pan de muertos (a sweet floury bread speckled with sesame seeds) is handed out, as is chocolate and other sweets, to the children. Preparation for the 2nd of November takes, however, slightly more time than gifting a few sugar coated skulls. In fact, some families are known to prepare alters and ofrendas (offerings) well in advance, around mid-October. These are usually set up in homes, although public ofrendas can often be seen on display in town centres, to appeal to visitors and tourists. 

Skull figures, Day Of The Dead Mexico

These can take on various shapes and sizes. Some public displays are to great national figures, such as Frida Khalo, Diego Rivera and Pancho Villa. Ofrendas and shrines hold personal favourites of the deceased, from food, to pleasures and vices, such as alcohol and cigarettes. Mole is prepared and spooned into ceramic bowls, tamales are on display, Delicados boxes with the odd cigarette poking out offer an indication as to the habits of the muerto in question. And of course, no ofrendas could be complete without intricate papel picado - multicolored paper cut outs hanging over or strewn across the shrines. There is a strong smell of essence, a combination of that burnt in churches but also the scent from the flower that blossoms nearer the time, the Cempazúchitl. These come in two chief colours, orange and a deep magenta. Their petals are scattered across the shrines and in doorways, inviting the deceased in to the celebrations. Some are left whole, hung in baskets around the ofrenda, to represent nature and the delicacy of life. As they only blossom in this period, the symbolism of having such a delicate and momentary item on the shrine is yet another example of how moving this celebration truly is.

Each state of Mexico has its idiosyncrasies, in the food offered and the overall look of ofrendas, but it has to be said that the celebration truly comes into its own in the state of Michoacán, with Morelia, the capital, and Pátzcuaro, a small town bordering the famous lake, of the very same name, offering a veritable feast for the eyes. 

Day of the Dead, Mexico

The whole of Mexico comes to life (rather ironically) during this period, but the festivities are truly felt in the northwestern state, where ofrendas pave the streets of Morelia’s centre, huge figurines are built out of papier mache, to represent Catrina and her groom - the skeletal lady incarnating the essence of Day of the Dead. Inspired from a tale of a young wife who passed away on the day of her wedding, José Guadalupe Posadas created a series of images, all hand-drawn, to represent figures of death. Nowadays, it’s very common to see people dressed up as the Catrina, or her groom, as well as a host of other characters inspired from the great Posadas’ works. He was originally from Aguascalientes and in his hometown, there’s a brilliant museum dedicated to his life and work - well worth a visit if you happen to be in that part of Mexico.

Although the celebration takes place throughout Mexico, nowhere is it more eery and sensational than on the lake of Pátzcuaro, on the night of the 1st. Lonchas, or little wooden boats, take flight from the shores of the town to a small hill, at the centre of the lake. The locals light candles and place ofrendas on some of these, giving a spectacular view as you catch hundreds of boats drifting away, peppering the landscape with dim lights all around the island. As you reach the shore, you have to walk around the higgledy piggledy narrow streets to get to the top, next to the panteón, or cemetery. It is quite a touching and moving experience, seeing families, big and small, hunching over the graves of their forefathers, with tortilla baskets, flowers, candles and other personal items, in the wake.

Women with facepaint during the Day of the Dead

Young children, families and pets all circle the streets, with laughter and music filling the air. Intertwining with this joviality is the sense of expectancy, reminiscence and memory for those lost. As you make your way along the narrow callejones and take a peek into people’s homes, you are faced with the innate sensation of modern times mixing in with old, treasured traditions. People have their radios on, all the while tampering and putting the finishing touches on their ofrendas. The true beauty of this celebration, like no other, is the combination of contemporary life as we know it celebrating and paying their respects to their roots, their elders, their families, their memories. 

It is incredible to think that on this date, each year, millions of Mexicans don’t shy away from the idea and notion of death, don’t lament or grieve their loved ones, but rather celebrate their existence, their tastes and their legacy through this extraordinary night of song, tradition and dance. 

“Life is an endless cycle of souls, swirling along the path of the universe, being reborn, but never truly dying before being reborn again. As long as this cycle continues, we will never really die.”  ― Ameila Wolfe