When I was planning this trip (and by planning I mean ‘deciding in which order to visit places without really checking the availability of transport links’), I scheduled the whole of the first month around getting to Oaxaca in time for the Day of the Dead. I’d found a website that reckoned it was one of the best places to see the celebrations and booked my hostel accommodation a couple of months ahead to ensure I had a place to stay.
The town was crowded and the hostel full of people who had come specifically for the Day of the Dead. There was a lot going on. We went to a square one night to see a satirical song and dance act performed by a group in skeleton suits, every so often during the day I would see a small parade of people in costumes accompaned by a brass band go by and in the evening there were lots of costumes and music in the streets.
One feature of the celebrations is the creation of three-dimensional sand pictures, coloured (either sprinkled or sprayed) and often with a liberal application of glitter. I saw small ones in front of altars and on graves and there was a group of huge ones in one of the town squares:
Altars are a big thing. They are temporary displays set up in homes and also in public spaces such as offices, hotels and schools. Here is the one at the Museum at Monte Alban:
They are decorated with marigolds, fruit (a tiny, orange tinted, apple-like one is popular), bread, nuts, candles and have religious images and often an incense burner. Indeed the smell of marigolds and copal incense is everywhere – particularly in the markets and the cemeteries. The markets are of course fascinating anyway, but at the moment are full of stalls selling all the festive requisites. There is special bread (Dead Bread as I ended up calling it), with sugar heads or other decorations, ranging from a tiny roll to a loaf the size of a pillow. Here’s one of the smallest, along with the sugar skull I couldn’t resist buying and a marigold head I found on the ground:
In homes there will be photographs of dead family members on the altars and their favourite food will be left for them; our hostel’s had beer, chewing gum, sugar skulls and something unidentified in a bowl covered in cling film. The idea is that their spirits will visit and enjoy the food – children on the first night and then adults the next.
On the night of the 31st a few taxi-loads of us from the hostel went to a nearby small town to visit the graveyard. It was full of families sitting around candle-lit and decorated graves.
There was an orchestra and choir performing in a marquee just inside the entrance and small groups of guitar and accordion players were wandering around inside, as where the wandering snack vendors that are everywhere in Mexico. The place was packed and when we left at 11pm, getting even more so – the families apparently stay there all night (or at least as long as is possible if they have young children).
The next night I walked over to the main graveyard in Oaxaca. There were far fewer people attending graves there, although that may have been because they’d all been the night before. One family was having a serious party though. They’d set out folding chairs on some nearby flat graves and were serving hot food and beer whilst a guitar group entertained them.
Meanwhile, in an arcaded cloister lined with burial niches, each of which had a candle, another band – brass and percussion this time -were playing fast dancing music. A fair number of people were in costume, particularly children, and there was a display of altars produced by various community groups.
Just outside there was a fun fair and a plethora of stalls selling food, knickknacks and last-minute candles and flowers for those still needing to decorate a grave. I would very much have liked to buy some of the little dressed skeletons that are on sale often in little scenes of everyday life in glass fronted boxes but as I doubt they would survive the journey home I had to give them a miss.
Skulls and skeletons are of course everywhere during the celebrations. I was sitting having a hot chocolate at a market stall and watching the morning TV cookery programme that was showing and the presenters were all dressed up and made up as skeletons. The most popular image and costume is that of the Catrina – a skeleton in the dress of an upper class Victorian or Edwardian era woman wearing a wide-brimmed veiled hat.
Finally, I thought I should attempt a Lego model for the occasion, so here is my Lego skull: