A Month in the Yucatan: Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead, a colourful, festive and joyful way to show love and respect for deceased family members.

As in years past, I started my Mexican Adventure by returning to the sea side town of Progreso in the Yucatan. This year for the first time I made it to Mexico in time for Dias del Muertes, a celebration in which death and deceased loved ones are honoured. Things were scaled back somewhat due to Covid but there were still some interesting things to see and do.

Symbols of the Day of the Dead: Skulls, Calvera Catrinas, Offerendas & Papel Picados

If you haven’t seen the movie Coco I highly recommend it as a fun and touching way to acquaint yourself with Mexican culture and especially the believes and practices around the Dias del Murertes.

Dias del Muertes is actually several days in duration with a day dedicated to children, and then one for adult relatives and ancestors. Similar to our Canadian Halloween, people dress in costume and walk the streets admiring each others costumes. Adults and children alike participate. There are generally musical & cultural events and each community celebrates in a different way but all have in common a visit to the cemetary to spruce up the graves of lost relatives and to invite them to return to this realm by offering food, drink and special treats. Elaborately decorated altars can be seen in private homes, (called offrendas) to welcome the spirits.

Family Home Oferenda
Costumes often include Marigolds

We spent a few days visiting various locations that we heard would be interesting examples of the festivities. One evening we went to Merida and sat in a restaurant to watch a pasado of costumed families followed by a cultural performance in a square at the end of Paseo de Montejo.

Perhaps the most interesting event for us was a visit to a pueblo called Pomuch, where we walked through the local graveyard. The tradition here is to open the boxes of the deceased and clean the bones, leaving them on display, free to roam, for a few days before they are returned to rest in peace. Unlike Halloween which is a dark night of terror and mischief, Day of the Dead festivities take place over two days and are colourful, festive and joyful, with the point being to show love and respect for deceased family members.

Cemetaries are Cleaned and Decorated

A mish-mash of indigenous and christian beliefs the symbols of the Day of the Dead are important and include calveras or skulls. One of the most ubiquitous symbols of the Day of the Dead came about when Diego Rivera, Mexicos beloved muralist, painted a stylized skeleton in one of his murals. Dressed in a large feminine hat, Rivera named her Catrina, a poke at the rich. Sugar skulls abound and food items like pan de muerto, or bread of the dead is often shaped into bones and skulls. Other sweets include tiny dough teardrops to symbolize sorrow. Of course there are drinks too including pulque, a sweet fermented drink made from the agave. Of course costumes are important as festivities normally spill into the streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Faces are painted to resemble skulls and the Calvera Catrina. It wouldn’t be Mexico without some noise and costumes often include shells or other noisemakers to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.

Calvera Catrina

To represent the wind and the fragility of life Mexican’s use layers of paper, piercing it with a hammer and chisel points to form elaborate patterns. The Papel Picado is draped around homes, streets and restaurants and adds to the festive atmosphere that permeates the day of the dead.

Certainly this celebration of death wasn’t the same as in other years without the pandemic but Mexico being Mexico there was still lots to see and do even without the large scale celebrations and gatherings that are the norm.

Marigolds
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