Written by Heather Whipps
As kids across Canada and the United States dress up as skeletons and superheroes for Halloween, families in Mexico are beginning their own multi-day holiday, one with similar roots (and ghouls) but a deeper, spiritual meaning. El Dia de los Muertos is a 3,000-year old celebration like no other, which honors the dead in colorful ways. It began with the Aztec culture, but was also celebrated by the Mayas and was known to the local Yucatan Mayas as Hanal Pixan.
Today’s Day of the Dead in Mexico is a subtle fusion of these beliefs and more recent colonialist customs. Put simply, Mexicans believe that the portal to the underworld is open on that day, and the dead and the living can reconnect. Sounds scary? Remarkably, it’s not, and the day really is a family affair meant to reminisce about and honor loved ones who’ve passed, and to remember how death is a natural part of the life cycle. Rather than fear death, we should celebrate and even laugh at it, it is said.
Over the three days’ festival (October 31st to November 2nd) you can expect to see colorful skeleton decorations (calaveras), marigold flowers, and plenty of representations of the hauntingly gorgeous Catrina, whose image is probably the most famous part of Dia de los Muertos to outsiders -- and one of Mexico’s best-known cultural figures, period. A female skeleton dressed up in traditional and colorful high-class robes and a flower crown, Catrina represents how everyone in Mexican society is equal in death, and that death comes for everyone.
Typically, the celebrations also feature kids painting sugar skulls, or calacas -- the skull you see often turned into works of art sold across Mexico -- and, most importantly, the preparation of altars to the dead, or ofrendas. Families will lovingly decorate a table with colourful blankets and cover it with little gifts, marigolds, candles, the deceased’s favorite foods, and sometimes even their favorite vices, like cigarettes. Usually included here is a sugared bread called Pan de muerto (bread of the dead), round in shape to represent the circle of life. A picture of the individual is left on their shrine so that they know which shrine is for them, because even the dead can get lost.
If you’re in Playa del Carmen during El Dia de Los Muertos 2017, you won’t be disappointed. The celebration takes place in the homes, parks and cemeteries in towns across Mexico, and Playa is no exception.
You might find that many bars and restaurants will offer Halloween or Day of the Dead themed meals, drinks, or parties, and celebrate the holiday in their own way. The town will also put on some shows in the streets. You can expect, for example, a Parade of the Catrinas. Perfect for the very chic town of Playa del Carmen, it’s a parade of beautiful women dressed up as La Catrina, complete with ghoulish makeup and flowing dresses, down the town’s famous La Quinta Avenida.
Nearby Xcaret park also hosts their own Day of the Dead festival, featuring workshops, concerts and folkloric performances over the three day period. For something a bit different, a trip to celebrate Hanal Pixan in a Mayan village, such as Tres Reyes, can be arranged through Maya Luxe and will provide memories (and photos) to last a lifetime. From the altars everywhere completely blanketed with marigold and food offerings, to the cenote ceremony at dark lit by candles and torches, the people of Tres Reyes take their tradition seriously.
If you want to venture a little further afield, head to Merida, where the colonial town’s famous Paseo de las animas (Passage of the Souls) parade will give you shivers of joy, with its gorgeous costumes, painted faces and music.