A far cry from wandering the streets of the West Village in a Wonder Woman costume, this Halloween week I crossed off a major bucket list item: celebrating Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, in Oaxaca, Mexico – one of the largest celebrations in the world. Landing about halfway through a 2.5 month trip around the country, here are some of the major takeaways, including the fact that Day of the Dead isn’t just one day!
- Day of the Dead is more of a homecoming. While I always thought it was a celebration to remember those who had died, that’s not the case. It just happens to be that the dead think November is a great time to visit their families. It was explained to me like this: imagine your beloved relative, who now lived in another country, called to say they were coming into town for three days. Naturally, you would clean the house, cook all their favorite foods, invite all their friends, and have a huge party the entire time they were in town. That’s what Day of the Dead is!
- But not everyone is invited to the party. Those people who died within the last year get low status on the dead totem pole. While everyone goes home to see the loved ones they left behind, these spirits are left in charge of the spirit world.
- Day of the Dead isn’t just a day. The biggest celebrations happen between Halloween and November 2nd, but the entire month of November is used to celebrate the dead. Small towns – or pueblos – host celebrations throughout the month, typically on Mondays (!), in their cemeteries to honor the dead returning.
- Wear comfortable shoes. During the Day of the Dead celebrations, spontaneous dance parties in the streets are inevitable. Parades – calendas in Spanish – are held throughout the day and night with bands, floats and dancers. Locals and tourists alike ranging from small kids to grandparents – most with the skeleton face paint on – can join in the calenda as it weaves through the cobblestone streets.
- Catrin and Catrina – the iconic skeleton couple – have only been around since the 30s. While this couple is a popular Halloween costume, their appearance at the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead party hasn’t been less than 100 years – though you couldn’t tell by the sea of sugar skull faces you see. And on the topic of sugar skulls, they are used to honor the dead, or if given to someone alive, you are wishing them a sweet death (whenever that happens).
- Sip mescal; shoot tequila. Oranges and chili powder accompany mescal (if anything) and the typical lime and salt goes with tequila. Mescal has a smoky flavor and should be enjoyed as a standalone drink. Proceed with caution when drinking both!
- Ofrendas – or the altars during Day of the Dead – come in different sizes. But all must have these four things: water, salt, candles and dulces (sweets). In addition, bread, flowers, photos, bowls of mole, trinkets and more cover the altars. In fact, the dead have their own bread with little Barbie-like heads in them! If you visit someone’s home, you bring something to add to the ofrenda.
Want to learn more about Day of the Dead? Pixar’s latest movie Coco hit U.S. theaters November 22nd. While there are a few inaccuracies, it truly shows the importance of Day of the Dead to the Mexican people.
Have you ever been to Mexico for Day of the Dead? Did you know these 7 things, any surprise you? Comment below!
Follow more of Kimber’s travels through Mexico and around the world on Instagram.