Death: the Aztecs and Mayans worshiped it. The Spaniards feared it. But when these cultures clashed, the Mexicans who arose from the ashes of the Conquest used death to create one of the world’s most unique celebrations. Every year from October 31 to November 2, the entire nation dresses itself up in costumes that evoke the romance, sorrow and nobility of those who have already faced their maker, for better or worse. Faces are painted to resemble skulls. Colourful skull-shaped candies and sweet skeletons enliven the display windows of pastry shops, looking rather festive considering what they allude to. Families make pilgrimages to the cemetery to commune at the graves of their loved ones, often bringing music and food to console themselves and cheer up the dead, who make their way back from the underworld during this one time of the year.
Ghoulish? Yes and no. Far more immersive than Halloween, the Day of the Dead is certainly a mix of indigenous death cults and the Catholic All Souls Eve, and yet there’s something muy feliz and a touch surreal about the sight of little girls dancing with giant flowers in their hair, horrible face paint teeth grinning at the passersby, while Mariachi bands serenade the deceased in cemeteries adorned with masses of marigolds. No other country in the world celebrates the duality of life with quite the same gusto and good humour.
If you’re fortunate enough to be in Mexico during the Day of the Dead, your resort may mark the festival with special decorations and activities. Be sure to sample a type of sweet egg bread called pan de muerto, taste a sugary skull and wherever you are, peruse the local market, where vendors will be selling the gamut of materials for astonishing altars built to honour the dead. If you can, join a procession wending its way through town toward a joyful reunion with the souls of lost family members.
Of course, while there is an element of display to many of the activities during this holiday, and the flowers, costume, makeup, food and music are irresistible to anyone with a camera (as you’ll see), the Day of the Dead remains a sacred time for Mexicans. It is a chance to gather together with family and friends to remember their departed loved ones, ponder the fleeting nature of life, and pay their respects to the grim reaper while demonstrating the power and beauty of their extraordinary, living culture.
With its strong indigenous traditions, the state of Oaxaca holds the most beautiful Day of the Dead ceremonies. The capital, Oaxaca City, is a riot of colour and activity during the festivities, where a visit to the 20 de Noviembre Market is an essential part of the experience.
Article by Genevieve Weynerowski originally published in one edition of the Atmosphere magazine.