Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has gone Hollywood these days, morphing into a campy show of surprised-looking skulls, parades of skeleton brides and face-painted devils, and an excuse to celebrate the night away with some celebratory mezcal.
All of those elements – skulls, processions, celebration and mezcal – have been part of the holiday for centuries, but at its roots, it’s a celebration of loved ones who have passed on, in a way that not only affirms the raw joy of being alive but subtly thumbs its nose at the specter of death.
One of the most important holidays in Mexican culture, Day of the Dead combines a little bit of Mardi Gras-level pizazz with a huge family celebration honoring the ancestral defuntos (departed ones).
In Mexico – particularly in the far southern state of Oaxaca – it’s virtually a week-long holiday. There’s plenty of time to reminisce fondly about the past and those who have passed on, visit and decorate their graves (and maybe pour out a little mezcal to share the celebration), and honor the memory of family and friends gone but not forgotten.
Like many Mexican holidays, Day of the Dead jumbles together religious and secular traditions, overlaying indigenous beliefs with those of interloping Spanish conquistadors. Indigenous people buried the skulls of their ancestors beneath their home’s floors, to always be with them, and celebrated a day in August when they believed the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead to be the thinnest.
The Spaniards, wanting to make the holiday conform to their Catholic calendar, moved the holiday to November 1 to coincide with All Saints’ Day, their closest shot at the original meaning of the day. With their ancestors’ skulls no longer beneath their floors, the indigenous people made ofrendas (offerings) to their loved ones, incorporating important elements so that the departed could find their way home for that one day a year.
Each home’s ofrenda (often called an altar, though it has nothing to do with worship) has common features: candles to light the way, incense and marigolds for their scents to help guide the defuntos home, pictures of the departed and food to offer the weary travelers – traditionally bread, fruit, nuts and chocolate.
An arch of sugar cane over the ofrenda is traditional, since the goddess of the underworld notoriously has a sweet tooth, and sugar skulls are scattered among the food and drink. And usually, a good portion of mezcal so that the defuntos can celebrate with the family. Some of the soft drink bottles on the ofrenda may actually hold soda, but they may also be recycled recipients of homemade brew.
The living want to do everything possible to welcome their departed loved ones home, remember the time that they spent on earth and honor them by throwing the biggest party possible. In the small villages of the state of Oaxaca, November 1 is a giant open house: with such large families, defuntos may be visiting many homes that day and so should the living. Holiday food – particularly chicken in yellow mole sauce – is on the table and the mezcal flows freely.
Each village in Oaxaca celebrates a little differently. In the weaving town of Teotitlán del Valle, the cemetery custodians throw open the graveyard gates at 3 p.m. sharp on November 1 to let the souls go home for 24 hours (like a military pass), but expect them back promptly at 3 p.m. the next day.
In San Miguel del Valle, high up on the skirt of the mountains, the visiting moves into the panteón (cemetery) with music, dancing and more mezcal, and continues all night long. In San Antonino Castillo Velasco, families spend most of the week decorating graves with fresh flowers, like a Rose Bowl parade float. They mound up damp sand into the shape of a casket and sketch designs into the sand with a nail, and then painstakingly stick in flowers and petals of all varieties and colors in elaborate designs. Crosses, virgins, swirls, flowers, the deceased’s name with birth and death dates – all are for one day’s viewing and a contest with cash awards.
In the traditional corners of Oaxaca, families – particularly widows – still sit vigil at gravesides by candlelight on November 1, sometimes all through the night. These days there are camp chairs and coolers, boom boxes and strolling musicians to play your loved one’s favorite song, and elaborately costumed and face-painted tourists tromping through the cemetery. Catrina, the fashionable female skeleton in elegant Victorian clothes to die for, is a particular favorite among the costumed crowd.
Though the U.S. side of the border has adopted the more flamboyant aspects of Día de los Muertos, if you lift up the showy petticoat of the decked-out Catrina, you can still see the origins of the celebration. Día de los Muertos celebrates the very short cycle of life while looking death straight in the eye – and winking.
Join Waco’s celebration of Day of the Dead with the second annual Día de los Muertos Parade and Festival from 4-11 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29. The parade will take place from 4-5:00 p.m. down University Parks Drive, starting at Indian Spring Middle School. The festival in Indian Spring Park will feature craft live music, art, a Day of the Dead-inspired fashion show, booth vendors, food trucks and activities such as sugar skull decorating and face painting. Sponsored by Creative Waco. For details, visit the website here.