Here we are in Oaxaca for the well-known celebration of the Dia de Muertos. We decided to come here after falling in love with Disney’s « Coco », inspired by Oaxaca and its traditions👌🏼📽
At first, I thought it was another commercial celebration, like Halloween. But then we really immersed ourselves in the local culture and took the time to understand what it’s all about, speaking with locals, learning about the History, seeing a myriad of live parades/shows/plays and visiting cemeteries on the night of October 31.
In Mexico (especially in the Central and Southern regions), this holiday is about families gathering to remember and honor their relatives. It is a tradition which mixes Catholic beliefs with pagan/indigenous traditions. Contrarily to what we could think, there is nothing sad or macabre about this practice. It is all about supporting loved ones’ spiritual journey, helping them cleanse their Soul and find their way back to their homes. Here, death is perceived as a natural part of the human cycle. Indigenous people believe we die only to be reborn and to give new life: just like the sun, we set and rise to be born anew. Mexicans believe that throughout time, the dead acquired the “right” to visit their families. Therefore families nowadays have the “obligation” of welcoming them.
These are not days of sadness, but days of celebration because the dead awaken to return home from the Heavens to share some special moments with their family. In Oaxaca, families typically spend the entire night of October 31st lighting candles and sitting by their relatives’ beautifully decorated tombs, until the sunrise. This practice stems from the belief that if the entire family does not leave its home, then their relative’s Soul will not be able to return home quietly and at its own pace – where it is welcomed by a personal altar after a long and tiring journey.
Every single element of these altars serves to support the Soul’s journey and guide it back home. They typically contain a picture of the loved one, candles, bright orange flowers and scented fruits, all serving the same purpose: to guide the Soul so it finds its way back more easily. Water, salt and copal incense help it cleanse and hydrate after what is believed to be a rough journey. An image of the deceased’s favorite Saint offers them protection, and many diverse offerings (such as their favorite foods, beverages, mezcal, and various other objects) are exposed to bring them joy and ease their crossing.
From November 1-3rd families gather in private, praying for their dead to be blessed in Heaven. After November 3rd, once their relative’s soul has left them to set out on its return journey, they can then themselves indulge in all the delicious offerings (eating their offerings earlier might upset the dead, so they believe) – sometimes even sharing them with friends and neighbours, from what I understood. So from a spiritual point of view, the most important happenings take place on October 31st and November 1st, when a lot of praying happens and Souls return home.
As for the “lost” Souls, those with no relatives here below (or relatives who don’t care anymore, I guess…), we were encouraged to light a candle and place some offerings on empty tombs we might come across in the cemeteries – a gesture I found particularly touching ❤️
I truly loved witnessing these very special days. They taught me to let go of my Western view of life and death, reminding me that there is no life without death. Here they actually say you already start to die when you are born… Personally, I will forever try and remember my loved ones with a smile and light heart because I think their Souls will be able to rise and travel more freely if I do not hold them back with my sadness. It will serve them better to see me happy than sad and clinging on to their earthly form. As their time comes, acceptance is what helps everyone most – dead or alive 🌺✨🙏🏼
Ps: As opposed to what you could think, the Dia de Muertos is not celebrated all around Mexico, but concentrated in the central and southern states. Our Mexican-Mayan friends from Campeche (in the Yucatan peninsula) for example, did not celebrate at all. FYI, from what we’ve heard from locals, the best places to witness these celebrations and traditions are Oaxaca city, Michoacán and Guanajuato.