Celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico City

Dating back almost 3,000 years the Day of the Dead has become an increasingly famous festival for the living

The Mexican capital Mexico City was founded by Aztecs an later rebuilt by the Spanish conquerors — Shutterstock
Mexico City was founded by the Aztecs and later rebuilt by the Spanish conquerors — Shutterstock

Mexico City manages the incredible feat of being both the oldest capital city in the Americas and having an economy the same size as Peru. Founded in 1325 by the Aztecs, it expanded over the next 200 years to engulf the surrounding settlements until, in 1521, it was destroyed by the invading Spanish, who then decided to rebuild the city almost as it was, with the minor alteration of replacing all of the Aztec temples with Catholic churches.

Ah, religion. However, it is for a religious (of-sorts) festival, that Mexico grew increasingly famous to the outside world.

The Day of the Dead dates back almost 3,000 years and was originally a month-long celebration during what a modern-day calendar would define as August. It was only during the 20th century that the festival took on the form it currently takes, that of honouring the death of infants on 1 November, followed by adults the next day.

So, when researching this article, I thought there must be a load of information about the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. I’ve seen SPECTRE! I’ve seen James Bond fight with a chap in a helicopter over thousands of people parading below in elaborate costumes! It looks great!

Mexico City uses the festival as an excuse for a party; there are face painting and costumes, giant skulls and displays of dance and art — Diego Grandi / Shutterstock Mexico
Mexico City uses the festival as an excuse for a party; there are face painting and costumes, giant skulls, and displays of dance and art — Diego Grandi / Shutterstock

However, and not for the first time, James Bond lied to me. I really should learn to stop trusting him.

For it turns out that, although they do acknowledge the celebrations in the capital, it seems it’s far more likely you’ll see the spiritual side in smaller towns and villages. Mexico City uses it as an excuse for a party; there are face painting and costumes, static displays of sculpture (giant skulls and so forth) and displays of dance and art, all centred around the Plaza de la Constitución (the huge public square also known as the Zócalo).

Calavera Catrina is the poster girl for the Day of the Dead celebrations. Originally nothing to do with the festival, she was a satirical character created by Mexican illustrator and printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada. The character is a skeleton that harks back to the original Aztec art of the region, dressed in early 20th century women’s fashions.

The poster girl for the Day of the Dead Calavera Catrina was originally made by as a satire by Jose Guadalupe Posada in 1913 — Jose Guadalupe Posada Mexico
The poster girl for the Day of the Dead was originally made as a satire by Jose Guadalupe Posada in 1913 — Jose Guadalupe Posada

It was a jab at the upper-classes who were seen as trying too hard to adopt bourgeois European fashions and ideas in pre-revolutionary Mexico. The 1948 work ‘Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central’ by Diego Rivera cemented the character in Mexico’s popular consciousness.

It is now her that is the most apparent character if you look around, the poignant political undertones of an elite ignoring the plight of the downtrodden matching perfectly with the date.

Traditionally, the festival revolves around making altars to the deceased to be taken to the graveyards and cemeteries. Graves will be cleaned and covered in the altars, which will include favourite foods and drinks of the deceased, as well as toys for children, and blankets and pillows to aid the sleep of the dead.

In smaller towns, people will spend all night with their families next to the graves of their loved ones. So, it is out of the city we shall venture, to the small community of San Andres Mixquic, approximately 50 kilometres south-east of the city centre.

Traditionally, the festival revolves around making altars to the deceased to be taken to the graveyards and cemeteries. Graves will be cleaned and covered in the altars, which will include favourite foods and drinks of the deceased, as well as toys for children, and blankets and pillows to aid the sleep of the dead.

 

The more traditional way of celebrating the festival revolves around making altars and taking them to the graveyards and cemeteries — Kobby Dagan / Shutterstock
The traditional way to celebrate the festival revolves around making altars and taking them to graveyards and cemeteries — Kobby Dagan / Shutterstock

In smaller towns, people will spend all night with their families next to the graves of their loved ones. So, it is out of the city we shall venture, to the small community of San Andres Mixquic, approximately 50 kilometres south-east of the city centre.

This is a well-known place for Day of the Dead celebrations and, as night falls, the lights of thousands upon thousands of colourful candles flicker and light up the church and the graveyard that surrounds it. The smell of incense fills the air, as well as the smell of food.

Due to its relative proximity to Mexico City itself, this has become a place of modern pilgrimage for locals and tourists alike, with all of the trappings that that brings with it. The reverence of the churchyard is at odds with the smell of the grilling tortillas and the sounds of the mariachi bands playing outside. There is also the odd hard-line Catholic with a warning sign.

In a small town of San Andres Mixquic the lights of thousands upon thousands of colourful candles flicker and light up the church and the graveyard as the night falls — Roberto Michel / Shutterstock Mexico
In a small town of San Andres Mixquic, the lights of thousands of colourful candles flicker and light up the graveyard as the night falls — Roberto Michel / Shutterstock

Many Catholics are very much against what they see as a Pagan ritual being embraced in a Catholic environment. In fact, even those who celebrate the Day of the Dead as a purely Mexican tradition are having to come to terms with its popularity and commercialisation.

Since 2009, mounted police have been on duty in Mixquic during the festival, as well as large patrols of police on foot. That, coupled with the fencing off of certain areas, and restrictions on the sales of alcohol during certain times, is starting to reinforce the feeling that this is becoming an endeavour more for outsiders than locals.

Of course, this is just one of the many ways the festival is celebrated around the country. The traditions of each region vary, just as in the cities during recent years, children have taken to dressing up and going from house to house knocking on doors, or asking people on the street for sweets or money, similar to Halloween in the US and the UK.

The increasingly touristy nature of the festival, however, still doesn’t detract from what it is. Unusual though it may seem to European sensibilities to celebrate death, it is a time when families and friends come together to celebrate the lives of those that have gone before. A time of great joy and remembrance. And, of course, a time to celebrate everyone that you still have.