The Day of the Dead festival
Renowned for its macabre over the top costumes and extravagant makeup, The Day of the Dead festival or Día de Los Muertos, to give it its proper name, is two days of parades, dancing and parties across Mexico.
However, despite being so well known, most westerners misunderstand the festival, often mistaking it for a Latin version of Halloween. However, while the two festivals are connected, they differ greatly in both tone and tradition.
Halloween is not so much a celebration as more a night of mischief and terror. In recent times All Hallow’s Eve has lost much of its religious significance and is now a day when children dress up in spooky costumes in the hope of gaining a few treats for their trouble.
The Day of the Dead festival, however, stays true to its founding principle. It is not a celebration of death, as most Westerners assume. It’s actually a celebration of life. A day when relatives demonstrate their love and respect for lost relatives.
The origins of Día de Los Muertos
The origins of the Day of the Dead festival go a long way to help understand its significance. The festival dates back hundreds of years to the Aztec and Nahua people. These pre-hispanic people considered mourning disrespectful. Death was simply considered a phase of life, with the dead, kept alive in both memory and spirit.
Once a year their spirits were said to return to Earth on Día de Los Muertos, ‘The Day of the Dead’. Originally the festival took place at the beginning of summer but was moved to All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day in October/November, to coincide with Christian holidays following Spanish colonisation in the 16th century.
Today, the festival combines elements from both Aztec and Catholic traditions, with harvest feasts, exotic costumes and parades all used in equal measure to honour the dead.
Mexico City is the main draw but provincial parades offer a more authentic experience
Day of the Dead festivals take place in towns and cities across Mexico with the biggest and most spectacular parade to be found in Mexico City itself. This is the parade to visit if you want to immerse yourself in the fascinating costumes, extravagant parades and magnificent feasts that typify this event.
But to get a more authentic experience you may want to consider one of the smaller festivals which take place in the provinces across Southern Mexico. One such festival takes place at Tuxtepec, a small city in Oaxaca State approximately 287 miles Southwest of Mexico City.
Here the locals painstakingly arrange coloured sawdust, flowers, rice and pine needles on the cities streets to create an elaborate carpet of colour. Each precinct designs their own display which is then judged in a contest at the end of Día de Los Muertos. A provincial event such as this is less touristy than the Mexico City Parade but no less spectacular.
Historic, exotic and meaningful
Whichever Day of the Dead festival you choose to visit you can be sure of an exotic display of Latin culture and heritage. The costumes are beautifully crafted using traditional techniques, the atmosphere is electric and the people are warm and welcoming.
But unlike other festivals, a visit to the Day of the Dead festival can have a profound effect on the way you think about life. Because while the festival is a celebration of life, it also highlights its fragility. Día de Los Muertos shows us that we are only here for a fleeting moment, so make sure you to enjoy each treasured minute as it passes.