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Monday, October 30, 2017

It's Fiesta Time for Mexico's Hungry Ghosts!

Festive skeletons (Catrinas) are on display (photos: Michelle da Silva Richmond)

November 1, El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a national holiday in Mexico, a country with roots deeply entrenched in ancient Indian and colonial Spanish cultures. Throughout the country residents are preparing for the traditional festivities, which date back to pre-Hispanic times.

For reasons obliterated by time, the souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this evening and the festival slowly acquired a sinister significance. Witches, ghosts, demons, black cats and all things evil were believed to be roaming the earth. Halloween became associated with pagan rituals, probably prompting the Christian celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1 and 2. 

In the Beginning -

In the Aztec world, a different festival or sorts was underway. Obsessed as they were with death, the ancient peoples of Mexico believed that it was necessary to die in order to be born again. To guarantee this rebirth, they set aside two months in which to honor those who had gone before them. The ninth month of the Nahuatl calendar was dedicated to children; the 10th to adults. During this celebration, human sacrifices were made to insure the flow of fresh blood, so vital to regeneration.

Graves are decorated for the occasion

Abundant offerings were laid beside the sacrificial stone, as young men attired in feathers and jewels gyrated around it to the beat of Nahuatl music. Although this was basically a solemn occasion, it was “fiesta” time in the Aztec world and a good excuse to drink pulque (a potent brew made from cactus).

The evolution of the Aztec empire was cut short by the Spanish conquest and it probably wasn’t difficult for the conquering priests to persuade the recent converts to shift their months of the dead to a two-day celebration, known as All Saints and All Souls Day. The meshing of pagan and Catholic rituals which resulted formed an interesting tradition in Mexico which lingers to this day.

This link to the past is long and not always clear but it has become a “sacred” tradition. November 1 is set aside for the children who have died; November 2 is for adults.

Skulls and Catrinas come out of hiding

Fiesta Time!

In Mexico on these two days, everyone feels morally obligated to go the cemetery to honor their dearly departed and “convivir” (spend time) with them and in true Mexican style, a social happening takes places.
Typical Mexican dishes are reverently prepared and toted - along with several bottles of the preferred drink - to the gravesite. Tombs are adorned with the flower of the season, the pungent “tzempazuchil” (marigolds, revered by the Aztecs) and candles and incense are laid around the grave. Once the stage is set, the gathering begins around midnight with prayers, ending in the wee hours of the morning with drinking and raucous toasting to the “continued good health” of the deceased.

Though this rowdy practice has been banned in many cemeteries, it has become a tourist attraction in some parts of Mexico. In Mízquic, along the southern outskirts of Mexico City and on Lake Pátzcuaro’s island of Jánitzio, in the state of Michoacán, worship of the dead with all its pageantry is alive and well.

Colorful altars spring up everywhere

In many towns, the homage takes place in the home, with altars festooned with flowers and photos of the late loved one prominently displayed. On the November 1 a large table is laid out, laden with offerings of flowers, fruit, candied pumpkin water, toys and candles. These gifts are left out all night so that the spirit may partake of the “essence” of the offering. The following morning, the “leftovers” are consumed by the family, with the thought that they have shared a meal with the missing family member.

A hardier meal is set out on November 2 in anticipation of the adults with additional treats, such as “pan de muerto”, sweet, doughy bread with crossbones emblazoned on its crust, added to the menu. Flowers, candles, incense, a bottle of tequila, if he enjoyed a nip, or a pack of cigarettes if he smoked (even if this was what killed him) are carefully set out for the “visitor.”

Small death figures made of marzipan, gruesomely fashioned for the ritual are a highlight of the feast. Skulls with the names of the living etched on them, and skeletons decked out as brides, soccer players, musicians and beggars complete the bizarre scene. 

According to ancient tradition, eating these macabre confections is the Mexican's way of laughing at death and proving that he does not fear it - a macho act of sorts. Another common way of celebrating the Day of the Dead - and the most palatable - are “calaveras” or witty poems and epitaphs penned for relatives, friends, or celebrities who are still among the living. These written or drawn eulogies were made popular at the turn of the century by José Guadalupe Posada, a political satirist. Today they are used mainly to poke fun at friends, or to mock the Grim Reaper.
The original Catrina by José Guadeloupe Posada

Mexico City’s popular Bazaar Sábado boasts one of the best Dia de los Muertos displays, amid its delicately fashioned arts and crafts. A brilliant display of marigolds, fiery décor and multi-colored candles line a long table brimming with tamales, tacos, pan de muerto, candied pumpkin and jugs of tequila and pulque.

Ghost orchestras surface

Carved wooden skeletons masquerading as a ghost orchestra face off with sugar skulls, each with the name of one of the Bazaar’s employees etched into it. At the end of the festival, the employee eats the skull bearing his name - another act of defiance. Mexico’s fascination with death is legendary and although the celebration is beyond the comprehension of most outsiders, the event is an interesting one to observe. Whether this is just another excuse for a party, a way of discharging the soul or merely a show of “machismo,” there is no doubt that death takes a holiday in Mexico every November.


  1. What an informative and entertaining story about the history of Day of the Dead and how it is recognized to day. I'm always fascinated by cemeteries and love learning about various customs. And your photography is beautiful, especially the catrinas.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments. It truly is a fascinating custom! Glad you enjoyed the article.

  2. I did not know that eating the treats is a way of laughing at death. Cool stuff.

    1. Thanks so much. It's a very interesting tradition! One of my favorites!

  3. Great article, Restless! Having lived in Mexico City for 20 years, I was privileged to experience some of the wonderful and beautiful traditions associated with the Day of the Dead. Your look into the roots and reasons for what has survived of this ancient celebration was so interesting and informative. The Mexican people have infused a solemn time with their inherent love for colorful joyous beauty.