Why the Day of the Dead is the life and soul of Mexico for travellers
That’s the Mexican Halloween, isn’t it?
Au contraire, or de lo contrario. Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is held around the same time but, as visitors will quickly find out, it is less about scaring people and more about celebration. The theme is death, but it’s a life-affirming explosion of singing, parading and revelry.
So, they’re celebrating?
Yes. Mesoamerican cultures saw death as a cause for cherishing life, rather than mourning, which was seen as disrespectful. The Aztecs duly created a riotous festival (originally held in summer) honouring Mictecacihuatl, the mythological Lady of the Dead, who was sacrificed as an infant. For the two days of the festival, the underworld is said to have opened, allowing deceased souls to return to Earth for a knees-up. After the Spanish colonisation of Mexico in the 16th century, the festival fused with Christian celebrations around All Saints’ Day (1 November; the day after Halloween); the date changed and the festival became a mash-up of Aztec rites and Catholic feasts.
The prelude to the Día de los Muertos is known as the Day of the Little Angels (1 November), which nods to the story of Mictecacihuatl and celebrates those who died young, with toys, milk and sweets offered at the graves of children. The following day (2 November) brings the adult version, as bottles of tequila and mezcal (a liquor made from agave) are offered at graves along with personal trinkets and sweets, including sugar skulls.
But I thought it was all one big party?
The core of the Day of the Dead is deeply personal, revolving around homemade feasts and lavishly decorated temporary altars ( ofrendas). But the celebrations invariably spill onto the streets, where revellers dress up as skeletons and party hard.
Where’s best to see this?
Just as individual celebrations are personalised, they also vary from place to place. In the Michoacán state town of Pátzcuaro, people from the surrounding countryside converge on the shores of its eponymous lake, pile into canoes and head to Janitzio island for an all-night vigil. Elsewhere, celebrations are intense across the southern state of Oaxaca, especially in the small city of Tuxtepec, where locals create elaborate patterns in the streets from sawdust, petals, pine needles and other natural stuff. Just about anywhere in Mexico, though, you’ll find a party.
Drop-dead gorgeous Many partygoers dress up in skeleton make-up for the Day of the Dead