Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mexico's Day of the Dead Festivities

For many of us, it might seem scary to tell stories of the dead to very young children or to allow them to play with skeletons and skulls. But in Mexico during the Day of the Dead festivities,it’s not only perfectly natural and appropriate but these and other activities are a celebration, where everyone spends time remembering their relatives who passed away. They honor them by setting up elaborate altars with items their relative liked when they were alive, whether it’s a favorite food or beverage or other items.

And they add candles, fruit and flowers (the marigold in the flower of the southern part of Mexico) to tempt the dead to pay them a visit.







Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Xcarat, an eco-archeological park in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. And, though at first this sounded like one big amusement-type park -- which I’m not a fan of -- in fact, it’s an entertaining educational experience year-round, but especially during the Day of the Day -- really referred to as Vida y Muerte or Life and Death, which they celebrate from October 30 through November 2.



In the following photos -- most taken at Xcarat and one during a private ceremony in Coba -- you’ll see some of the colorful, lively and life-affirming activities.




This tiered cemetery is set on seven levels representing the seven days of the week and contains 365 faux graves that reflect actual tombs and the amusing epitaphs found all around Mexico. During the Day of the Dead, anyone can place offerings and a photo of their loved one on any of the graves.

Xcaret offers a number of special workshops and displays for children to celebrate the Day of the Dead, and that includes a visit with a very evocative storyteller who goes under the guise of La Catrina, the signature Lady of the Dead, wearing her traditional upper class dress. She tells stories of the dead that captivate children and adults alike (including me).


Another Day of the Dead specialty is mucbi pollo in which a chicken dish that can be prepared different ways is cooked by burying in the ground. I was able to attend a private village ceremony in Coba where I watched the locals prepare the mucbi pollo almost like a chicken pot pie -- they made the pie of corn meal, wrap it in banana leaves and bury it in the ground along with hot coals. The burying is accompanied by music played on traditional percussion and wind instruments. The highlight was when it was uncovered two hours later, accompanied by a shaman who blessed the food and offered it to the spirits.

35 comments:

Arna Rut said...

I wish we would have made it to Mexico before the Day of the Dead. But here we are right now...enjoying the sunshine:)

JTravel said...

Hi Arna, I'm surprised it's taken me so long to get to Mexico for the Day of the Dead. Oh, and by the way, I loved your post on Tikal. I was there and climbing it is way scary.

Alexandra said...

Interesting post! In Sweden, they have similar celebrations to honor the dead, but it is all on the day after Halloween, November 1. People return to the town of their birth to pay hommage to deceased relatives in the cemetery. That cemetery in your photo looks particularly interesting, by the way. My husband always makes the exploration of local cemeteries a part of his travel plan when abroad.

MyKidsEatSquid said...

What an amazing experience. I haven't been in Mexico for the Day of the Dead, but I've heard a lot about it. The confections that they make are so beautiful, creative and quirky, I really need to learn how to make some.

JTravel said...

Hi Alexandra, I had no idea about the Day of the Dead-like celebration in Sweden. But, like your husband, I also try to visit cemeteries when I'm traveling. I found two really beautiful ones in Zagreb.

JTravel said...

Hi MyKidsEatSquid, Yes, they make some very cool and curious confections. We saw them teaching children how to make skull-shaped sweets (calaveras) during the festival.

Christine said...

What a fascinating topic, and it got me thinking about similar traditions around the world. In Korea there is also a day which is a mix of Thanksgiving and Halloween. It's a harvest festival, but also involves remembering ancestors and offering some of the harvest to them. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuseok.
In Japan ancestor worship happens at the end of summer.
I don't think we really have any such similar holidays to this in the U.S., do we?

JTravel said...

Hi Christine, thanks so much for the cool information on the festival in Korea. I had no idea there are many different types of Day of the Dead-type celebrations around the world. And, though Catholics celebrate All Saints Day, the U.S. doesn't really have a festive holiday where you remember those who've passed on.

Stephanie - Wasabimon.com said...

I've never celebrated Day of the Dead in Mexico proper - it's on my bucket list!

Steph Auteri said...

I haven't been during the actual Day of the Dead festivities, but I did go to Xcaret while on my honeymoon, and the cemetery was my favorite part! Seriously, I took so many photos. I thought it was gorgeous. Later on, I bought a gorgeous, colorful, detailed Mexican sculpture to remind me of that part of our trip.

We were inspired to later throw our own Day of the Dead party at our condo in NJ. The idea of celebrating the lives of past family members was appealing to me, and I had guests bring foods that reminded them of family members who had passed. It was a hit!

marthaandme said...

This sounds like a really great holiday, although I admit I can't quite get past all the skeletons. Other than that, I like the idea of taking a day to honor ancestors. And that chicken sounds stupendous!

Susan Johnston said...

Cool photos. That skeleton is truly terrifying!

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart said...

Honestly? This kinda creeps me out.

JTravel said...

Hi Stephanie, It's funny that Day of the Dead celebrations were never on my list of things to do. But it certainly should've been. I'd love to go back and spend more time exploring all of the different regional celebrations in Mexico on those days.

JTravel said...

Hi Steph, I completely agree. Climbing the different tiers of the cemetery at Xcarat was, surprisingly, my favorite activity. It's amazingly picturesque. That's so cool that you had your own Day of the Dead celebration in NJ! It's a great way to remember loved ones.

JTravel said...

Hi marthaandme, I wish I could prepare the chicken dish at home. It was so yummie that I had seconds that night.

JTravel said...

Hi Susan, Glad you liked the photos. Skeletons always scare me too.

JTravel said...

Hi Roxanne, I completely understand. Many of the people I traveled with were creeped out, too.

Sheryl said...

I find it so interesting to see all the pictures - so many of them cheerful and colorful - put together with the word "dead." Certainly helps take away the darkness of it and help celebrate the lives of those no longer alive, I guess.

JTravel said...

Hi Sheryl, yes, it's so wonderful that in Mexico everyone looks forward to the Day of the Dead as a way to fondly remember their loved ones and celebrate the lives they lived.

Vera Marie Badertscher said...

Actually, anybody who wants to experience Day of the Dead without going to Mexico can just come on down to Southern Arizona. We're surrounded by the skeleton figures, the sugar skulls and all the celebrations.

Case said...

The skeleton horse and buggy is absolutely fantastic - great photos!

JTravel said...

Hi Vera, Good point. I, for one, didn't realize that Southeastern Arizona has Day of the Dead festivities.

JTravel said...

Hi Case, thanks so much. Glad you enjoyed the photos.

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sarah henry said...

Fantastic photos and what a great time to go to Mexico.

JTravel said...

Hi permanent traveler, Thanks so much for visiting my blog and posting a kind comment. I'll check out your blog.

JTravel said...

Hi sarah, yes, it was the perfect time to visit Mexico. I'd do it again, for sure, and spend more time exploring Day of the Dead festivities. Glad you liked my photos!

Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi said...

I would love to be in Mexico for Dia de los Muertos. Maybe one year...

JTravel said...

Hi Melanie, I'd visited Mexico before, but never for El Dia de los Muertos. It was definitely an experience and well worth it. I hope my post provides you with some useful information in case you make it to Mexico for this celebration.

Meredith said...

So interesting. I've seen many mementos for this, but never in context, if that makes sense. It sounds really incredible.

JTravel said...

Hi Meredith, Yes, it was great to spend so much time on the trip experiencing the Day of the Dead from a variety of perspectives. Thanks for your comments.

canvas wall art said...

Heard a lot about the day of the dead and really would love to experience it.

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Paulina Muez said...

Great article, I'm from Mexico and I've never traveled to the south part of Mexico to spend Día de Muertos they do a big deal about it. Even though people might think it's a little scary, it's not, I remember being in elementary school and making our own "altar de muertos" in our class room it was fun!
Any way, I'm from Puerto Penasco Mexico and we always have Americans that come here for this holiday, you should try it sometime. Happy travels.