The Mexican perspective on death is different from that of other cultures. Mexicans share the traditional western view of death as the end of all things and they fear death and mourn for the dead as do other cultures but they also have a strange relationship with death that is contrary to the Grim Reaper image.
That relationship may stem from the indigenous cultures that worshipped various gods of death and that offered sacrifices—sometimes human sacrifices—to propitiate those gods. The syncretism between these indigenous beliefs and Catholicism brought by Spanish invaders metamorphosed an already extant belief in an afterlife into something more accessible to the mind. Death was no longer a permanent state since spirits existed in an afterlife and were thus able to visit with those left behind. In some ways, death lost its sting, resulting in a more comfortable, accepting relationship with it.
Nowhere is this relationship better exhibited than in Mexico’s centuries-old Day of the Dead festival—Dia de Muertos. Actually, more than a single day, the festival begins on October 31 and runs through November 2. As Spanish priests worked on converting the indigenous peoples to Catholicism they at first tried to ban the festival which had been in existence for centuries, rooted in the Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. The native peoples challenged the priests’ attempts to halt their food offerings to the dead, explaining that their offerings were no different than the bread and wine the priests offered in the Mass. Rather than antagonize their potential converts the priests wisely conflated the indigenous celebration with the Catholic holidays of All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Saints’ Day (November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2).
The angelitos, the spirits of deceased children return on All Hallows’ Eve while the adults return on All Saints’ Day. On All Souls’ Day families go to the cemeteries where they offer food, drink, incense, candles and even music to their departed family members.
Although there are some variations throughout Mexico, the usual customs of Dia de Muertos include cleaning and decorating with candles and flowers the gravesites of deceased relatives and building elaborate home altars called ofrendas in memory of those same departed relatives. The beautiful ofrendas typically contain lots of candles and flowers (usually marigolds), pictures of the loved ones and offerings of their favorite foods and beverages. It is believed that the spirits of the departed relatives return to their homes during the festival so the food and drink will refresh them. One might also find a bowl of water and a towel for the spirits to clean themselves with after their long journey; pillows and blankets may be left out for their rest. The general idea is to encourage the return of the spirits so that they may hear the family’s prayers and discussions about them.
Skulls and skeletons are iconic images of Dia de Muertos, figuring prominently in decorations and displays while celebrants frequently wear skeleton costumes and makeup during exuberant celebrations that rival Mardi Gras. There are special foods associated with the festival, notably the calaveras, sugar skulls, and pan de muertos, bread of the dead, often made in the shape of bones.
At once, both a somber joyous celebration, Dia de Muertos is a colorful and exciting festival not to be missed. . . and now you have a chance to join in.
I am excited to offer my first Day of the Dead Cultural Tour in Oaxaca, Mexico! Please join me for 6 days and 5 nights in beautiful Oaxaca, October 29 – November 3.
From our three-star hotel base in Oaxaca, we will explore the Day of the Dead traditions throughout the region. Some of the paranormal and metaphysical highlights of the trip will include:
- the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle where we will visit the whitewashed church of thirteen altars and stop in at local homes to see how families prepare their ofrendas (altars) for the ancestors.
- Oaxaca City and the villages of Ocotlán and Zagache where we will visit the most colorful church in Oaxaca, Santa Ana Zagache and see how the cleaning and decorating of graveyards in the villages is shaping up. We’ll be out late at night in Oaxaca City visiting cemeteries filled with glowing candles, orange flowers, and the voices of the living and the dead.
-the Etla Valley where we will go from village to village, joining in with their comparsas, which are masquerades reminiscent of Mardi Gras, complete with masked dancers, brass bands, fireworks, and colorful crowds. It will be another late night as we celebrate from village to village in this unique Oaxacan experience.
-San Marcos and its fabulous graveyards, filled with topsy-turvy tombs shaded by enormous cypress trees. We’ll also tour a little-known treasure, a creepy Zapotec cruciform tomb beneath the floor of a crumbing hacienda.
-Monte Albán, the spectacular ruins of the Zapotec spiritual, political, and cultural center in Oaxaca, dating back to 500 B.C., and noted for its famous painted tombs.
That is just a brief list of the tour’s offerings. In addition to the paranormal and metaphysical aspects of Oaxaca’s Day of the Dead celebration, our tour will also include visits to art and historical museums as well as culinary and arts and crafts traditions. The Foodie Sisters, Connie Kirker and Mary Newman (my wife) will guide us through Oaxacan markets and cuisine. We’ll even have the opportunity to make our own Oaxacan lunch with the help of a traditional Zapotec cook in her open-sided cocina (kitchen). We’ll also get the chance to visit with local weavers, potters, sculptors, and other artisans during our tour.
So, whether you are interested in the paranormal and metaphysical sides of Day of the Dead, or you favor the culinary and artistic sides, this tour has something for you!
Operated for us by Celestial Voyagers Travel, the Day of the Dead Cultural Tour is a great deal at $1495 per person. The price includes:
- 5 nights lodging double occupancy (single supplement – $200)
- All local transport in private van
- Entry fees, tips for meals, tips to presenters/artisans
- Local guides and transportation
- Airport transfers (Oaxaca airports)
- 5 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 3 dinners
- High quality, small group travel
If you’re interested in joining me in Oaxaca—and I hope you are!—please contact me with any questions and for a detailed itinerary and information about the tour. Contact me through www.johnkachuba.com or at email@example.com