Immediately after I said: “See you at midnight in the front of the cemetery.” I smiled and I got scared at the same time. It’s one of those things I never thought I would say out loud, but in Mexico somehow it doesn’t sound so strange. At the same time when the All Saints’ Day is celebrated in Europe and Halloween in the USA, Mexicans gather at their cemeteries, have picnics, sing together with mariachis and have a good time, celebrating the famous Day of the Death. But it isn’t as terrifying as it sounds.
Three years in a row I celebrated this big day together with Mexicans and now I understand why are they so happy when they go to the cemetery. It’s actually very simple. They believe that the souls of their beloved come to visit them for one night each year and they don’t want them to have a bad time while they are back on Earth. They celebrate, sing, eat and do all the things so the souls feel good among their loved ones once again.
The old Mexican civilizations like Maya or Aztec had a strong bond with death. It wasn’t important how you lived your life, but how you died. If you died because of water (heavy rain, thunder, floods), you went to an underworld where the god of the rain ruled. If you died like a warrior, you went to an underworld where the god of the war ruled. That’s for example why they agreed to be sacrificed and be warriors, because if you died a “normal” death, you went to a place (underworld), where there were no doors or windows, and where ruled Mister and Mistress of Death. It was a place of total desperation and there was no way out. Back then people already believed that the souls are able to leave this sad place for one night. When the Spanish arrived to America, Christian and traditions of the indigenous people mixed and slowly this unique celebration was born.
There are many ways how people around Mexico and Central America celebrate, but one of the most authentic ones is in the Oaxaca region. People build altars in their houses. They can be small or big, but what is essential are the photos of your deceased. If you can’t find the photos, you should place some mezcal on the altar. It’s a typical spirit that is made in a similar way like tequila and it’s very popular in this region. If there is mezcal on the altar, the souls will surely find their way, as they were waiting one entire year to drink it again. Of course, you can’t forget mezcal because on the altars should be placed all the favourite drinks and meals of our deceased – chicken breast with rice, wiener schnitzel, chocolate, fruits, sweets, etc. You need to add candles, orange coloured flowers called cempasuchitl and decorate the altar in a nice way.
Skulls are everywhere. They are called cadaveritas in Spanish and became a symbol of this celebration in the beginning of 20th century when caricaturist called José Guadalupe Posada created a female skull with flowers on her head called Catrina. The drawings became so famous that girls started to dress up like her and today you can barely see a different costume when in Mexico. But it’s not just a costume, Catrina became a part of Mexican cultural heritage. House decorations, even handmade sugar sweets are made in a skull shape.
I was very lucky because four years ago I found a very special and very authentic celebration in a small village called Xoxocotlan. Taxi driver took us as close as possible and we “only” had to walk 200 meters in mud to arrive to the cemetery. Not knowing exactly where are we going, the only light we had were our phones as we used them to see at least a little bit, no people around and we were on the way to the cemetery in the middle of the night. Yes, it was scary! What calmed us a little bit was the smell of food and music coming from the other side. If I told you that we were surprised when we arrived, I would lie to you. We were more than surprised. It was a big gathering of people of all ages and all social classes, alive and for sure dead as well…
Flowers and their petals are used to decorate the tombs, coloured sand and candles. Families sit around, grandmothers in colourful ponchos are giving homemade food to their grandchildren dressed like little Catrinas (or eventually like monsters, spiderman or superman). People are talking and remembering their loved ones – mostly in a fun way. In the corner there is always one family that plays domino and drinks mezcal every year on the tomb. They told me they play domino only once a year and not because they like it so much. It’s because their father liked it so much. Mariachi musicians are really busy as every family wants them to sing for their beloved ones their favourite song. Not the sad ones that make you cry when you sing them, but the happy ones that make everybody dance. And yes, they do dance.
Did you already light a candle this weekend?