Celebrating ‘Day of the Dead’ in Oaxaca 

In October/November 2016 I was lucky enough to experience Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico. I had been keen to visit Mexico for a few years and witnessing the colours and festivities of this public holiday was a priority for me during my stay in the country. I was certainly not disappointed! 

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My take on the Day of the Dead skull makeup

What is Day of the Dead?

“Dia de los Muertos” is a public holiday celebrated in Mexico (especially the central and southern regions) to honour loved ones who have died. It begins at midnight on October 31st – they believe that the gates of heaven are opened and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. November 2nd is the day for the spirits of the adults.

Day of the Dead is a combination of ancient beliefs from Mexican indigenous cultures and the Catholic holiday- All Souls & All Saints Day. Before Spanish colonisation, the festival that developed into the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. By the end of the 20th century the ancient beliefs had combined with the Catholic beliefs and the festivities took place on the 1st and 2nd of November.

 

Why Oaxaca?

After some research before my trip I decided that Oaxaca would be one of the best places to see the festivities. It’s celebrated in a BIG way here. Not to mention the fact that Oaxaca is a pretty amazing colonial city that you should visit during a trip to Mexico whether it coincides with Day of the Dead or not!  There’s fantastic food, arts, culture and history here.

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Temple de Santo Domingo

How is Day of the Dead celebrated in Mexico?

Beautiful altars are made in the home and around graves. They are decorated with candles, flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil & bright red cock’s combs) fruit, peanuts, plates of food and special breads called pan de muerto. If it’s for a child, toys and sweets are often laid out. You sometimes see alcohol, cigarettes and even drugs if that’s what the person enjoyed whilst they were alive! The famous sugar skulls are also added for decoration.

I learnt that some indigenous families spend two month’s income on decorations to honour their dead. In the cemeteries, people clean tombs, play cards, listen to the village band and reminisce about their loved ones.

In other small villages, on November 2nd, there is a huge party that lasts hours into the night as send off to all of the spirits (since they wont be back for another year). The whole village comes out to celebrate! I was very lucky to experience this party for myself- more about that to follow!

This website has lots of great info about Dia de los Muertos if you want to learn more.

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An example of an altar
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Sugar skulls, fruits and flowers

My Day of the Dead Experience

I was really struck by how colourful this celebration is! The orange tone of the cempasuchil flowers will always remind me of Day of the Dead from now on- it really is everywhere in Mexico around the time of the festivities.

It is a little unusual at first to walk amongst tombstones as families are gathering around to celebrate the life of their loved one. Of course, you must remain respectful when in the cemetery, but taking photos of the graves is generally okay. I did however, avoid disturbing any families who were gathered around the grave.

My experience can be split into two parts- my time at the cemetery and my time at the village party. I will try my best to put what I saw into words for you all…..

The Cemetery

On November 1st we visited a cemetery in Oaxaca to see the decorated graves- I’ve never seen so many people in a cemetery at once ! The crowd was a mixture of locals and tourists but it was mainly locals.

 

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Decorated grave

 

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Each candle is placed in the location of a tomb

Many graves glowed beautifully with candles and of course there were flowers-lots of them! The cemetery in Oaxaca is rather large and some areas were still and quiet with few people around. Other parts lit up with noise from the live bands and theatre performances (my first time watching a bit of theatre in a cemetery !).

Just outside there was a fun fair which added to the noise and colour- lots of yummy Mexican treats were on offer too. I didn’t go on any of the rides but it was fun just to look around and take it all in.

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The fun fair
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A young boy wearing face paint

The Village Party

Whilst in Oaxaca I was on a G Adventures tour and we were very lucky to have local guides that were able to take us to a village about an hour outside of the city. The village holds a huge party every year as a send off to the the souls that have been down on earth for the past couple of days!

Day of the Dead and Halloween slightly blurred into one as some dressed up in typical costumes – like witches and ghosts, but others wore the more traditional skull makeup with their own personal twist.

I had brought some black and white face paint from home and I painted my own version of the “Catrina” skull on my face- and also made my boyfriend look a little bit like a Panda!

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Callum, Josh & Me

The party was like nothing I have ever experienced before ! The whole village would walk around from house to house whilst a live brass band and drummers played. Once we reached a local house we danced around in circles in their front garden for a while before moving onto the next one!

We were the only tourists there but the locals seemed happy to welcome us. A couple of guys told us that they were happy to share their traditions. We each made a donation to the village as a thank you for letting us get involved.

It was SO difficult to get good pictures in the low lighting with everyone moving around  – so apologies for the not-so-great snaps below:

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The live band
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The celebrations ended in the small village square
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Josh looking like a Panda because I couldn’t paint his beard
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The band

Some of the great outfits

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Photos of Oaxaca

On a side note- Oaxaca was gorgeous and so vibrant. Totally recommend going even if it’s not for Day of the Dead.

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Jess Harling
Jess Harling

Creator of Jess Travels

4 thoughts on “Celebrating ‘Day of the Dead’ in Oaxaca ”

  1. Interesting and had heard this before.
    Did you know the Chinese have a Hungry ghost festival too? It lasts for a month, on the 7th month of the lunar calendar. People don’t dress up and party though!

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