1. The markets
So, markets are kind of a year-round thing in Mexico, but let me explain myself. During the week before Día de los Muertos, the markets are filled with the flowers, incense, papel picado (paper with designs cut into it), sugar skulls, bread, and all the other things people buy for their ofrendas at home. We visited both the Mercado de Abastos and the Mercado de Benito Juarez in the week before the holiday, and both times it was an overly sensory experience with all the people, smells, and sights. Markets are generally exciting places, but visiting prior to Day of the Dead is even more so.
Costumes are a big part of the celebrations in some communities, such as the one we visited in the valley of Etla. Although Halloween has had an impact on the costumes here, the more traditional ones are still very common: Skeletons, devils, and Catrinas, among others. I even saw a few little Frida’s running around! The other option, if people decide not to dress up all the way, is to do the classic “calavera” makeup, with the black around the eyes and over the nose, a lot of times with jewels or other pretty designs. I attempted that when we made masks, but it turned out a little creepier than I intended.
3. Food: Mole, chicken, rice, pan de muertos
my host mom made the traditional meal for Día de los Muertos: Mole negro with chicken and white rice. I asked her how many ingredients were in Mole negro, and it turns out there are thirty-something ingredients, including five kinds of chili, cinnamon, nuts, chocolate, and several others. There are several types of mole, but mole negro is the most traditional and is eaten on Día de los Muertos, but only after putting a plate of it on the ofrenda, first. (Photo Credit Giovanna)
The other delicious food of the holiday is Pan de Muertos, which, my host mom explained to me, can be found during other times of the year as Pan de Yema and is more common to the coast of Oaxaca. During Day of the Dead, however, it’s made a little bit differently, and each one has a little head figurine stuck into it before baking to show that it is specifically Pan de Muertos. Of course, the most important thing to eat with this pan is chocolate. And this is not Nesquick powdered hot chocolate with mini marshmallows. It comes from a giant block of super rich chocolate and is made on the stove with either milk or water. It’s good for drinking or dipping the bread, and it is quite possibly my favorite drink here in Oaxaca.
This is perhaps one of the most colorful holidays I’ve seen celebrated. With Halloween, generally you just get orange, black, maybe a little purple, but not a lot of variety overall. Día de los Muertos is the exact opposite. There’s papel picado in bright jewel tones over many of the ofrendas, the flowers on the altars are bright yellow marigolds and another deep purple/red flower, and many of the other decorations involve bright greens, blues, pinks, yellows, and other colors.
5. Art in all sorts of forms
This goes along with the colors, sort of, but it’s just a shoutout to all the different forms of art I noticed during the celebrations. For one, tapetes (images related to day of the dead, generally made on the ground) made up of sand, flowers, and seeds are very common. There were some small ones in the street by my house, and we also saw the large ones at the Basilica de la Soledad (right), which each took up a quarter of the plaza outside.
We also spent the week before the celebration making masks at the ICO, which was a process in itself, and definitely counted as art. Otherwise, intricately designed sugar skulls, papel picado, skull face painting, and costumes were just a few of the other art forms I really enjoyed seeing around this weekend.
This is perhaps the most well-known part of Day of the Dead to people who don’t live in a culture where it’s celebrated. Families build an ofrenda in their house for the spirits of their relatives who have died and are returning to visit. Although everyone here calls them altars, they’re not really an altar to worship the people who have died, they’re an offering of some of their favorite foods. People decorate them with flowers, traditional decorations, and food so that the souls who come back to visit can have their favorite dishes again. In many cases, next to the large altar there will be a smaller one, for the “chiquitos,” or the “angelitos,” the babies and children who died before growing up. It has many of the same things the large altar does, but all smaller in size, and they may have treats more suited to children, like chocolate milk or juice instead of soda and mezcal.
7. People know WHY they’re celebrating
There was an awkward moment in our sociology class when our professor asked us why we celebrated Halloween, and she was greeted with a very empty silence. Most people in the U.S. could tell you that Halloween is connected to All Hallow’s Eve and All Saint’s Day, but how many people can explain the dress-your-child-up-to-go-ask-for-candy tradition? Here, everyone knows why Day of the Dead is celebrated, even if they themselves don’t celebrate it, which means it’s about more than just food, or decorations or traditions; there’s a deeper meaning behind it that is still celebrated and appreciated even though the holiday goes way back.
8. It’s not supposed to be scary
This, I think, is the biggest difference when people try to compare Halloween and Día de los Muertos. Even though Halloween has had some influence here, the traditions of Día de los Muertos are still very much alive, and they’re really not supposed to be scary. The skeleton and skull motifs that are so common during this time might seem initially creepy to someone from the U.S., while here they’re just a part of the ceremony. That just stems from a difference in the way the dead are seen in European tradition- mainly as unhappy souls that come back to haunt- versus the image of the dead here that is much more familiar. It’s not something to be feared, but an occasion to celebrate when they return.
9. It says a lot about the culture’s relationship to death
The relationship with death is completely different here. How else could I, someone who refuses to go into haunted houses or watch scary movies, have wandered by myself around a dark cemetery for an hour after being separated from the group, without jumping at every noise? It’s because the atmosphere in the cemetery wasn’t one of fear or haunting, but merely people remembering their loved ones and perhaps celebrating them. The point of the holiday is to celebrate the idea that death is considered to be temporary, and souls come back not to scare or destroy, but to visit the ones they love that are still alive. The distinction between fearing death and celebrating it is a fundamental one between the cultures, and even though the difference is most prominent in these few days, the slight differences it makes within the respective cultures can be seen all year round.
(Photo translation: I escaped from heaven for a little bit to come and give you a little hug)