By Jo Finzi
If you’re into all things spooky and didn’t get enough ghostly activity this halloween, why not celebrate Mexico’s famous day of the dead festival - el diia de los muertos - on 1st and 2nd of November.
Oddly, this is a joyous celebration, for the living to happily remember their ancestors and the dead to visit the homes and families they have left behind. It’s also a spectacular event, featuring street festivals, parades, gifts and of course plenty to eat and drink.
The writer Octavio Paz tried to explain the attitude that, far from fearing death, the Mexican “chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favourite plaything and his most lasting love”.
The origins of the Days of the Dead lie in pre-Hispanic Mexico, when an entire month of sacrifices and elaborate ceremonies took place in July-August. With the coming of the Christian colonisers the “celebration” was moved to All Saints Day and All Souls Day on the first and second of November.
In most areas of modern Mexico, there are two days of the dead: the Dia de los Angelitos, celebrated on the 1st November and dedicated to the souls of children who have died, and the Dias de Los Muertos itself, celebrated on the 2nd November and consecrated to the spirits of the adult dead.
Much like the run-up to Christmas or Halloween in other parts of the world, the preparations for the festival begin weeks in advance, as shops begin to fill up with decorative paper skulls, morbid little lanterns, costumes, plastic skeletons and themed candy. Foodstuffs are prepared in the home, and special commemorative altars are set up all over the place.
Food and drink are a major part of the celebration, showing the festive spirit in which these commemorations are held. Families even leave plates of food in their local cemetery, alongside photos of the deceased and copali (scented candles). Music is also played to the departed audience, but these days, many people now take radios, replacing the older tradition of family singalong songs.
Children love the celebrations, as they are given all manner of spooky sweets and surprises: from marzipan coffins to white chocolate skeletons; grinning toy-skulls (calacas) to dancing puppet skeletons and pop-up coffin-toys.
The first day or Dia de los Angelitos is a sad occasion, when cherished toys and other objects representing the departed children are brought out and placed on altars in the home. The spirits of the little ones are invited to come and partake of the feast, and often a place is set for them at the table.
The second day is the main day of the celebration, and is marked with street festivals and parades. Much of the day is spent in cemeteries, and there is a traditional communion meal in the evening, when the “bread of the dead” (pan de los muertos) is consumed. Often this bread contains a little skull or other token of death, and it is taken as a sign of good luck for whichever family member bites into it.
Street celebrations vary greatly from region to region, ranging from sombre and funereal candlelit processions to exuberant street parades with vibrant with colour, music and dancing. Particularly noted celebrations take place in San Andres Mixquic, southeast of Mexico city, and Oaxaca. See http://www.dia-de-los-muertos.com/?gclid=CO7D7fnYk4gCFQgRZwod2GxvCA
(’Day of the Dead’ sweets photo by Cisco Dietz, AperTour)