Day of the Dead

Any excuse for a party! It's a perception triggered by the multitude of flamboyant annual street events in Mexico, many of which are thousand year-old religious rites, garnished to resemble a carnival or float parade. Mexicans are renownedly big on expression, however November's distinguished Día de Los Muertos (Day of The Dead) takes it to a whole new level. Perhaps best characterized as a merging of remembrance and Halloween, Day of The Dead is a national day of convivial celebration on for familial relatives and friends, both recently and long deceased. Day of The Dead tends to be regarded a two-day celebration in Mexico, honoring 'Día de los Angelitos' (Day of The Little Angels/ Infants) on November 1st and Día de Los Muertos on November 2 - the latter considered the pinnacle of the two-day tradition.

Day of The Dead is a Mexican rite dating back at least 2,000 years – far longer ago than the Aztecs, whom are often wrongly accredited with founding the tradition. Mexican tribes are known to have been exceptionally superstitious, retaining the skulls of elders to ward off evil spirits, as well as encourage rebirth within the family unit – possibly a catalyst for the present day festivities. The seemingly indigenous La Calavera Catrina (the skeletal embodiment of goddess Mictecacihuatl) was made famous by artist José Guadalupe Posada, however is a relatively modern entity. Commonly used to illustrate Day of The Dead literary works or as a muse for costumes, Catrina elegantly epitomizes many facets of Mexican culture, including art, color and self-expression.

Far from the melancholic day of prayer or silent reflection one might expect, Day of The Dead is a surprisingly ostentatious and upbeat holiday. Exuberant theatrical scenes are constructed outside homes and churches in Mexico City's Distrito Federal, whilst graveyards too become a sea of flowers, comical figurines and partying. Preparation tends to begin as soon as the previous festivities are over – many families even vying for communal recognition for best display!

In the State of Michoacan, a small lakeside town known as Pátzcuaro garners recognition for their unique homage to Día de los Angelitos. Every year on November 1, families whom have lost a child create an entire altar laden with gifts, sweets, fruits and a Rosary in honor of his/ her memory. At night, the main plaza is brought to life with a party for the deceased infants; the entire community turns out bedecked in devil/ skeleton masks for a celebration of dancing and decadence, lasting until the small hours. Día de Los Muertos culminates with a communal midnight trip across Lago de Pátzcuaro in candle-lit mariposas (boats), to the cemetery island of Janitizio. According to locals, the celebrations have been known to last until dawn!

Unique to the small Michoacán town of San Angel Zurumucapio is the festival of “Jimbanqu” - a P’urhepecha interpretation of Day of The Dead. The October-fest of Jimbanqua is characterized by the making of floral horses, for display outside the village church and along main thoroughfares. Each carefully woven rose-horse resembles a family member recently passed and forms the focal point for shrines of prayer on November 1st. At Xantolo in the State of San Luis Potosi, flowers also play a central part in Day of The Dead celebrations – the local custom being to create gargantuan daisy chains from smaller flowers to theatrically decorate homes and communal squares.

Day of The Dead takes on a very unique character throughout Mexico, however, one thing remains central to all festivities – the celebration of love, community and life. If you're planning a holiday during this convivial time of remembrance, be sure to mark one of the major cities as a stop-off on your schedule!

Occurs on November 1 every year.

Some of the best places in Mexico to celebrate Day of the Dead include:

  • Mixquic, Mexico
  • Janitzio and Patzcuaro, Michoacan
  • Oaxaca, Oaxaca
  • Merida, Yucatan
  • Aguascalientes
  • Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas
  • Xcaret, Xcaret theme park
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