Every year November 1 and November 2 bring about one of the most beautiful celebrations on our planet, Dia de los Muertos or Day of The Dead. Instead of spooks and ghouls roaming around seeking candy, it is time to celebrate the dead. It is a tradition that is over 4,000 years old and actually predates Mexico as a country dating back to the ancient civilizations of the Aztecs and Mayans.
A few years ago I was able to travel to the Riviera Maya to take part in Day of the Dead festivities. It is an experience that sparked a deeper understanding of death and the circle of life. A subject that has long been taboo for much of the Western world, became one of fascination and intrigue. What I discovered in witnessing the theatrics, the costumes, the face painting, the processions, the candlelight vigils, the altars, was beauty.
Driving to a Mayan village near Cancun, the medicine man of the village took us into a cenote where the villagers were bringing altars to honor the dead. They would cook their favorite foods, light candles, and place marigolds around the altars. Flower petals were placed in a path leading to the altars so that the spirits may find their way.
This ancient tradition of the Aztecs and Mayans has evolved into a multiple day celebration found in various parts of Mexico with plays about death performed in elaborate larger than life costumes, candlelight pilgrimages to cemeteries, sugar skulls, artfully decorated altars, and Hanan Pixan (food for the souls). The old Aztec Goddess Mictecacihuatl is the modern “Catrina” — the lanky, skeletal female figure dressed in sumptuous clothing and giant ornate hats, who serves as a reminder that death is a fate that even the rich can’t avoid.
With a strong belief in the afterlife Dia de los Muertos celebrates that death is simply a continuance of life, just on another plane of existence. A cyclical part of life that is to be embraced not feared. Here are the best places in Mexico and the best places in the Southeast to celebrate Dia de los Muertos:
Visitors to Oaxaca during Day of the Dead can visit colorful marketplaces in nearby villages, witness vigils in a variety of cemeteries and take part in night-time carnival-like processions called comparsas. There are also sand tapestry competitions and Day of the Dead altars set up throughout town.
In the Maya language, Day of the Dead celebrations are referred to as Hanal Pixan, which means “feast for the souls.” Families gather to prepare a special seasoned chicken tamale wrapped in banana leaves (called pibipollo), which is cooked underground in a pit. There are also festivities in the streets and cemeteries.
Xcaret theme park in the Riviera Maya hosts an annual Festival de la Vida y la Muerte, “Festival of Life and Death,” in honor of the Day of the Dead. The festival runs from October 30th to November 2nd, and includes theater and dance performances, concerts, conferences, parades and special tours, as well as special Day of the Dead rituals.
The birthplace of engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada celebrates Day of the Dead every year with the Festival de las Calaveras (Festival of Skulls) from October 28 to November 2. The grand parade of calaveras along Aguascalientes’ Avenida Madero is a highlight of the festival.
Places in the Southeast to celebrate Dia de los Muertos:
For 14 years Bare Hands Gallery has put on a Dia de los Muertos celebration that has risen to be one of the largest in the United States and one of the coolest celebrations. November 2 enjoy kids activities, altars, performances, music, and the procession through downtown Birmingham. Click here for more information.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
The skeletal processional in downtown Fort Lauderdale is well known and this large event also showcases altars, dances and artwork by local artists.