What is the Day of the Dead?

What is the Day of the Dead? To answer the question, we interviewed a Tripper from Mexico named Isabel. She's a retiree who spends half the year in California and half the year in the western Mexican states of Michoacan and Colima.

When is the Day of the Dead celebrated?

The Day of the Dead ("El Dia de los Muertos") is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. It's a national holiday that is rooted in a tradition dating back hundreds of years. It was celebrated in August in Aztec times, but was moved by the Spaniards to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (November first and second respectively).

How is the Day of the Dead celebrated?

November first is referred to as Día de los Inocentes, which translates to "Day of the Innocents." On this day, it is the deceased infants and children which are remembered. In rural Mexico, where I grew up, infant and child mortality rates are higher, so in large families there is typically at least one little one who has passed. In remembering them, we visit their graves and set up shrines, with some of their favorite toys and treats.

On November 2nd, we remember all of our loved ones who have passed away. In my case, we go to my grandfather's village and attend mass. Then the entire extended family (his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren) heads to the cemetery, where we bring flowers to his grave, and some of his favorite foods and drink. We also clean the area around the grave (trimming any weeds and dusting off the headstone) and light candles. We do the same for all of our family members who are buried next to him.

At home, we typically set up a sort of shrine, where we have a statue of the Virgin de Guadalupe, figurines and photos of my grandfather and other family members who are deceased. We light candles and say prayers and set out ofrendas, which are a sort of offering or gift for them. For my grandfather, for example, we typically set out his favorite drink, which is called pulque and is made from a type of agave.

The typical foods we enjoy on the Day of the Dead is mole, tamales, candied pumpkin, sugar skulls and a warm drink called atole (translated to the deceivingly undelicious-sounding "gruel"). We also eat pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), which is a sweet bun-shaped bread decorated with bone shapes.

What does the Day of the Dead mean to you?

For me it has a twofold meaning. First of all, it is a very personal observance in which I remember my loved ones who are no longer living. It is a time to mourn and more importantly to celebrate their lives. Secondly, observing the day is a way to participate in traditions that existed before the Spaniards. They've evolved over the years obviously, but there is that sense of continuity and connection with the past.

It sounds like it's a family affair. Does that mean travelers to Mexico can't really experience the Day of the Dead?

There's a lake in my state called Lago de Pátzcuaro (Lake Pátzcuaro) which has an island called Janitzio. The locals dress in traditional costume and still speak a pre-Hispanic language. Their Day of the Dead observances are very famous. At midnight on the 2nd of November, they light candles and have a boat procession then go up to the cemetery to honor their deceased. Many travelers arrive to witness the beautiful night.

[caption id="attachment_8700" align="aligncenter" width="576" caption="photo by A30_Tsitika via Flickr"][/caption]

Want to learn more about Mexican culture? Connect with a local via Tripping.

Have you observed the Day of the Dead? Leave a comment!

Photo credits:

shrine: photo by euroaxaca.org

Patzcuaro boats: photo by A30_Tsitika via Flickr

Interview by Anis Salvesen.