Mexico celebrates Halloween but the holiday, known as the Day of the Dead, is much bigger than America’s version of Halloween. It’s also more important to their culture. And Oaxaca is the center of the celebration in Mexico.
Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a celebration of the dead, with religious roots that go back to the Aztecs. The holiday is not really a somber occasion, as you might think of people mourning or remembering their loved ones. It’s more of a joyous fiesta, with lots of flowers, sand art, food, and costumes.
“Originally an indigenous holiday celebrated by the Aztecs and other Meso-Americans thousands of years ago, the newly-arrived Spanish (after failing to eradicate it altogether) moved the holiday to coincide with All Saint’s Day (November 1st) and All Soul’s Day (November 2nd) and tried their best to inject some Catholic influence.” TrailingRachel.com
Once again, here’s a huge Mexican holiday that can be traced back to pre-Hispanic origins. The Aztec ancient festival was a dedication to a goddess of the dead. When the Spaniards arrived, they added the Aztec festivities to the Christian holidays, forming a mixture of beliefs and traditions. The end result is a modern day celebration, which means big fun for tourists and locals alike.
The first day, November 1, is known as Día de Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) and is dedicated to children who have died. The second day, November 2, is Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead). But really the whole celebration is known as the Day of the Dead.
If you come to Oaxaca for this celebration, you will be treated to decorations and traditions you won’t see in other parts of Mexico or any other time of the year. Ofrendas (altars) are built as a sort of invitation to the dead spirits, with an arch that acts like a doorway or veil between the living and the dead. Family members will build an altar to help the spirit find its way home. Each altar is dedicated to a specific person or group of people. In fact, altars should not be dedicated to the dead in general, because that is an open invitation to any spirit, good or evil.
The arch can be made of sugar cane stalks, but other materials are used, too. Marigolds (cempasúchil) are the traditional flower for this holiday. Marigolds and skulls adorn the arch, which stands over a table covered with other symbolic items. In the center of the table is probably the most important part: a photo of the dead person. Without this, there’s no telling who the altar is dedicated to. A glass of water is an interesting element. Water is necessary because it is believed when the spirit returns, it will be thirsty. Fruit, pan de muertos (bread of the dead), calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls), and other food are placed on the altar in between the flowers, candles, and copal (tree resin) incense. Papel picado (literally cut paper; colored tissue paper, but can be plastic sheets nowadays) is hung around the edges of the table.
“Many of the Day of the Dead altars you’ll see in Oaxaca are works of art. Schools and social organizations hold contests for the best altars and some of them are astonishingly intricate and beautiful.” GoMexico.about.com
You’ll want to wander the streets and see as many different altars as possible. While wandering different areas of the city, especially Calle Alcalá, you will likely encounter a comparsas (parade). The procession, made up of skeleton-costumed dancers, may be spontaneous or planned. Everywhere you go you’ll find booths and street sellers offering everyday items as well as special holiday treats. You might consider purchasing some hand-painted skulls (not real human skulls, just in case you were wondering), hand-painted masks (skeletons again), or handmade jewelry.
Every holiday has some kind of special foods associated with it. Day of the Dead is the best time to enjoy mole negro (black mole sauce) and calabaza en dulce (candied pumpkin). Hot chocolate is also served, but it may not be sweet depending on who sells it. In the past, hot chocolate was a spicy drink. The calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls) are special candies, but not for eating. They are part of the decorations on the altars.
As you’re strolling the festive streets of Oaxaca, make an effort to visit the Zócalo (city center). Sand art or tapetes de arena (sand tapestries) can be found here. They often depict a scene or a famous person. Be on the lookout for Catrina, who is the symbol of the Day of the Dead. She was first depicted in a painting by José Guadalupe Posada, called La Calavera Catrina (“The Elegant Skull”). Women in a Catrina costume will look like skeletons with a large hat full of flowers.
Lastly, try to visit the cemeteries. In Oaxaca, there are three main cemeteries: Panteon General (Oaxaca General Cemetery), Panteon Viejo (old cemetery), and Panteon Nuevo (new cemetery). If you can, venture outside Oaxaca and see the villages in order to experience their unique traditions for this holiday. The Day of the Dead honors the dead and celebrates life, which is good reason to have a festive atmosphere full of parades, fireworks, and fun food.
Where to Stay:
Casa Divina Oaxaca, a charming and intimate resort located four blocks from the many fascinating historic sites and wonderful restaurants of downtown Oaxaca. The resort, located within a lovingly restored 19th-century Oaxacan home, reflects the culture of this fascinating city. Authentic Oaxacan art hangs from sun-dried clay walls, making Casa Divina Oaxaca truly feel like a home away from home. Oaxaca is a historic and cultural marvel famous for its spectacular architecture and delicious food.