The exuberance of Mexican hospitality takes on a special flare between October 29 and November 2nd, during "Dias de
los Muertos" or the Day of the Dead celebration.
Happy Day of the Dead! - Story by Thomas Whittingslow|
The festival typically begins around the 28 or 29th of October with a trip to the market for bundles of flowers,
foods and spices. Special cooking classes are held to help celebrants prepare the succulent dishes preferred by the
departed. These often include black mole with chicken or turkey, and duck when it's available.
Pan de Muerto
(Bread of the Dead), flavored with anise or ground cinnamon, is a staple and the recipe varies from village to
village. Once baked, the final loaf takes the shape of a skull decorated with icing or shapes of favorite items
of the departed. Drinks are not overlooked - tequila, refrescos of all kinds, and traditional atole, an ancient
drink made from corn meal and water, flavored with various fruits. Garnishes include red corn, pumpkin and
scattered campastuchil petals leading from the door to the family altar.
The indigenous people of Mexico believed that souls do not die but they are merely resting in Mictlan (Place of
Death). For them life was just a fleeting moment and unlike the Catholic belief of purgatory, Mictlan was a dark
place, but not somber. The departed spirits were not waiting for judgment or resurrection, but for an opportunity
to revisit their homes and loved ones. While the spirits cannot be seen, their presence is certainly felt.
Therefore, it behooves their families to put on their best by offering the departed their favorite music, food
and to visit with them.
Lights and flowers play a significant part. As the spirits leave Mictlan, they disperse through the mountains, plateaus and barrancas on sort of an annual getaway. In order to make their journey pleasant one, relatives lights candles throughout the night to help them find their way home. Fragrant flowers that emit a pleasant scent into the night air, like marigolds and cempascuchitl are strewn in pathways to guide the souls to the feast that awaits them back home.
The fact that this tradition falls on Halloween is no coincidence. When the Spanish conquered Mexico celebrating
the dead was so deeply rooted that they incorporated it into their "All Saints Day." Differing from the more
somber holiday imposed by the Catholics, the pre-Hispanic Day of the Dead is a happy event, where death takes on
a friendly aspect, as joyful as a visit from an old friend. Children do not see it as frightening or strange.
You'll realize this when you see five year olds' eyes light up while reaching for a skull-shaped candy,
proclaiming "Que Preciosa! In some of the villages around Janitzio the ritual is similar our Halloween "Trick or
During the early evening ritual flowers, fruit and squash are placed on the rooftops and hidden around the fields.
Teenage boys in facemasks "steal" the goodies to take home where the "loot" is cooked in a large pot and served to
the participants of the vigil.
One of the most touching aspects of the celebration is to see sleepy-eyed children arrive on November 1st for the
Vigil of the Angelitos or Little Angeles." Since early childhood they have been prepared for this occasion, one
that teaches them love and respect for the departed as well as awareness of their cultural roots. Little girls
dressed in their finest colored skirts and shinny shoes begin a three-hour vigil under the supervision of their
mothers. Fathers and brothers typically watch from a distance as the girls carry flowers and lighted candles to
the cemetery. Their altars are adorned with toys made of wood or straw, favorite fruits, and photographs of their
heroes. The food is less spicy than that prepared for the adults. "In our land, when a child dies, parents should
willingly give up the soul to heaven with a good attitude because he or she is considered a little angel. This is
the reason people light fireworks and don't cry, allowing the child to enter paradise and elude the departed souls
from coming back (home) to collect tears."
Around mid-morning the vigil of infants is lifted, leaving the graves covered with flowers, candle wax and toys.
The food is removed and the family returns home to begin preparation for the night celebration to mark the arrival
of the departed adults. In a room where statues of the saints are displayed, an altar is built with the symbol of
a cross and a more ancient shape of a square, bisected with spokes of cempazuchitl (yellow marigold, symbol of
death). Copal indigenous incense is burned throughout the night. Around midnight a bell is rung to reawaken the
slumbering souls to let them know their feast is ready. The celebrants quietly proceed to the cemetery with their
offerings. In the high plateaus it's often cold; fires have to be lit and warm drinks are passed around. In
silence, the family cleans and decorates the headstones, preparing to spend the night burning incense, lighting
candles, and sharing memories about their departed loved ones. Foreign visitors are usually welcomed at the
cemetery and into the home long as they are respectful of the spiritual tradition.
With the first rays of dawn, weary vigilantes face the sun, anticipating its warmth and the blessings of another
day of life. Families straggle home in small groups, leaving the cemetery with a few flickering candles.
Eventually the young men collect the offerings and deliver them to the church or a central location for
distribution. Of course the spirits don't consume the offrendas, but they evidently appreciate them. Once the
departed have tasted the essences, there are plenty of the living eager to devour the remaining candy skulls, pan
de muerto and chicken mole.
One of the most significant characteristics of primitive man is the ritual dedicated to their ancestors. Without
this there would be no great pyramids, obelisks or records of their passing. It is the very fabric of history and
civilization. The culture that settled in central Mexico is not much different from the Egyptians in the priority
it gave to honoring its dead. After five centuries, the custom survives. Now, as Mexican-Americans have undergone a
cultural reawakening it has become an important "cross-over" holiday. As the festival evolves it's amusing to see
the influence of pop culture and technology: Christmas lights, plastic floral arrangements, even "Big Gulp"
refreshments take their place at the gravesite. Yet none of this diminishes the love that goes into this ancient
Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico and in several southwestern states as well. As thousands of
Mexican-Americans make the pilgrimage back across the border to honor their ancestors, an increasing number of
visitors from the United States and Europe flock to San Miguel Allende, Oaxaca, Hermosillo and the villages along
Lake Patzcuaro for this unforgettable cultural experience. Those wishing to visit any major Mexican city during
the Day of the Dead need to make reservations in advance, as hotels are often booked.
Editor's Note: Award winning writer Tom Whittingslow is available for editorial and public relations
assignments throughout Mexico. His travel articles have appeared in America West, Florida International and a
variety of national publications. You can e-mail Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.