We have experienced some really jaw-dropping festivals around the world. We’ve lit lanterns in Thailand’s Yi Ping Festival, watched the Ogoh Ogohs dance in the streets of Bali at Nyepi, and witnessed the self-mutilation at the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket. Experiencing the Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico is right up there on our list of awe-inspiring cultural experiences.
Each year, Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. It is believed that on these two days the veil on the spirit world is temporarily pulled back and the spirits of loved ones can come back to this world to visit. November 1st is when the spirits of children return, November 2nd is when the spirits of adults return. For the most part, this is not a somber occasion, rather it is a full-blown party! After all, what spirit would want to return to sadness?
The main part of the celebration comprises of making a shrine to the spirit you are welcoming back. The shrine will include pictures of the loved one, favorite foods, favorite items, flowers, candles, drinks, and more. The alters are to help the returning souls feel welcomed and show them that they have not been forgotten. Most alters are placed in the home, but some are placed for public display as well.
Families gather in graveyards in the evening to decorate the gravesites with more pictures, food, drinks, candles etc. We were lucky enough to be able to visit a graveyard at dusk on November 2nd. It was a humbling experience for us. Before we went, we learned that as long as we acted with respect and did not get in people’s faces to take pictures, that our presence as foreigners would be welcomed. Indeed, we did not feel like we were out of place or intruding. We felt like silent guests, being allowed to witness a sacred event.
Throughout the graveyard, families gathered around beautifully decorated graves and ate dinner, presumably the favorites of the departed. There were many mariachi bands playing around the gravesites, the mood being one of celebration! Adults drank tequila and there was much hooping and hollering.
Another aspect of Day of the Dead, and one you are probably more aware of due to mass media, is the dressing up as Catrinas and Catrins. We were surprised to learn that this is a fairly recent tradition added on to the Day of the Dead after an artist completed a satirical etching in 1910 depicting a wealthy Mexican woman as a skeleton. The painting was meant to show that no matter how much money and power one has, we are all the same underneath.Another famous Catrina painting was painted in 1946 by famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera which I will add because I find it fascinating and beautiful.
“The central focus of the mural is on a display of bourgeois complacency and values shortly before the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Elegantly dressed upper-class figures promenade under the figure of the long ruling dictator Porfirio Díaz. An indigenous family is forced back by police batons and to the right flames and violence loom. To the far left, victims of the Inquisition, wearing the penitential sanbenito robes and the conical coroza hat, are consigned to the flames at an auto-da-fe. The center of the mural is dominated by the elegantly dressed skeleton La Calavera Catrina holding arms with the Mexican graphic artist who first conceived and drew her, José Guadalupe Posada in a black suit and cane. La Catrina wears a Feathered Serpent boa around her shoulders. On La Catrina’s right she is holding hands with a child version of Diego Rivera in short pants. Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo is standing just behind and between him and La Catrina; Kahlo has her hand on Rivera’s shoulder and she is holding a yin-yang device. La Malinche and Posada are staring directly into each other’s eyes.”
So while the dressing up as Catrinas and Catrins does not have a long historical background, many people incorporate this into their Day of the Dead traditions. And how fun is it to dress up as a fancy skeleton!?! As with the graveyard, we found that as foreigners we were very welcomed to dress up and take part in the tradition. Half of our family opted in while the other half decided not to. I would estimate that about 50% of the people we saw out and about at night were dressed up. Some had only facepaint (like us) while others had amazing and elaborate costumes.
On the night of the first in San Miguel de Allende, there was a parade for those who dress up and everything culminated in the central square of the Jardin where there was live music and a very festive atmosphere.
So what did we learn from our experience?
For me, the take away was examining my culture’s relationship with death. We burry, or cremate our dead and then have a funeral. While we still hold our loved ones in our hearts for the rest of our lives, there is no universal celebration or remembrance for those we have lost. Our graveyards are never filled with celebration. Celebration and death do not coexist in my culture. Although I do not believe that spirits return to the earth for one night per year, I do feel that the remembrance, honoring, and the celebration of life is a beautiful tradition.