Over the years I’ve been touched by different Mexican traditions and especially by the color and spirit of Dias de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Last year I walked in San Diego’s annual procession to the cemetery and marveled at the elaborate masks, costumes and decorations. But where did all this come from?
In pre-Columbian times it was believed that once a year the recently departed were allowed to return to spend time with their families and loved ones. It was also a time to honor the life cycle, fertility and the future. Eventually the uplifting celebration became the Day of the Dead.
After decades of violence at the hands of Conquistadors and decimation of indigenous traditions by the Spanish Church, many Mexican people held firmly to the ancient rituals and their respect for departed loved ones.
They also took advantage of the new plant their Spanish invaders imported to Mexico. While they might not have had much money, now Mexicans had lots of sugar and eventually sugar skulls became part of the tradition honoring the dead.
The Church relented their prohibitions and now, each November 1st and 2nd during celebrations of Dias de los Muertos, families
and friends come together to pay their respects at graveyards, in their homes and workplaces.
In Mexico shop windows are embellished; the cemeteries are tidied and decorated. Fantastical flower wreaths are created along with toys and figurines featuring calveras (skulls and skeletons) for the ofrendas (altars) in homes, markets and businesses. Favorite foods of the departed are prepared and Zenpasuchitls, a type of marigold, the traditional flower for the occasion, are found everywhere.
More recently the American Halloween tradition has pushed back with October 31st, significant to Druids and Celtics originally, that’s become a day filled with death and fear but the Mexican tradition has gained a foothold Stateside.
Some see it as a reason to indulge in elaborate face painting, to dress up and drink, but at its core Dias de los Muertos considers the sweetness of death, the touching silence of remembrance – and I hope my oversimplification doesn’t offend.
In San Diego the holiday transforms historic Old Town district where the little cemetery is transformed with color and flowers, shops set up elaborate altars and decorations, restaurants and bars entice with specials.
As the sun descends costumes and faces covered in colorful designs fill a growing crowd. On the steps of the Cosmopolitan Hotel, a choir in black sings solemnly.
The crowd grows and candles are passed out in anticipation of the procession to the cemetery. Finally, quietly marching forward shoulder to shoulder, the celebrants advance. Anyone may join in and the night I was there the hushed reverence, the anticipating buzz stirred my heart. Many carried small framed pictures of dead loved ones and I wished I had too.
For those of us distanced from our traditions and ritual, perhaps grieving or simply longing to pay homage beyond dropping a few flowers at a grave site, the Day of the Dead might bring a sweet closure or rekindle memory.
In Old Town, I noticed that many found the party at the Coyote Bar celebration enough or perhaps a way to drown memories.
No Day of the Dead in your town? You can still create a personal celebration:
Perhaps you’ll decorate a small altar with pictures and mementos. You can order small sugar skulls to decorate or make the traditional bread too. Here’s one recipe for traditional Pan de Muertos.
Reminds me of Breaking Bad – strange what pop culture does to culture.
Being so close to the border and in a neighborhood founded by Spanish settlers the ceremony was actually surprisingly respectful – outside of the bars. Thanks for the comment.
Really nice learning about the Day of the Dead, thanks! Have heard about it, but never really knew what it`s all about. What a great Day of the Dead celebration to be a part of in San Diego! Love that scary Dead Choir, cool faces! 🙂
Thanks, Maria. It was a special night to be sure, plus more fun than fear with scary faces and all!
How wonderful! I didn’t know about this celebration in San Diego’s Old Town. Wish I could have been there. I’ve been posting a lot about San Diego lately, http://travelswithcarole.blogspot.com/search/label/San%20Diego
Hi Carole, You’ve caught a lot of what makes San Diego special in your blog. Looks like you had a great time. We’re gearing up for the 100th anniversary of the Panama Exhibition, so you’ll have to return for the celebrations. Thanks for writing and perhaps you’ll catch the Dias de los Muertos celebration yet.
With families scattered all of the US now and many, like us, with no real hometown to call our own, the ritual of caring for ones’ family gravesites is disappearing. I love that the dead are honored and remembered once a year and the celebration in San Diego’s historic Old Town sounds meaningful without becoming macabre.
The celebration is a unique mix of ceremony, excitement, pageantry and remembrance. It was an honor to join in the procession. I’m sure there’s so much more going on beneath the surface. Thanks for the heartfelt note.
What an interesting post! I’ve only ever experienced Day of the Dead in Mexico so its fascinating to see how the traditions have been carried to other parts of the world. You’ve taken some great photos
Thanks, Michele, I just love these rituals and all the decorations.
How nice that San Diego maintains this Mexican tradition!
San Diego’s ties to Mexico run deep at the source. It is nice that our cultures keep blending. We have so much to learn and benefit from each other.
I so love these celebrations! Awesome pics, very funny 😀
Glad you liked the pix. Hopefully you’ll be able to be part of the celebration one day too.
A very poignant take on the celebratory aspects of this fascinating holiday. Replacing fear of the afterlife with honest remembrance has to be more healthy.
In Mexico I’ve heard they actually believe the spirit of recently departed return and set out their clothes, make their favorite dishes, so much more. It must make it easier for everyone, I think.
Great pictures and history lesson, thank you!
When customs get adopted it’s easy to lose track of the origins. Glad you liked the background notes.
I had no idea that the Day of the Dead was celebrated outside of Mexico. Quite the eleaborate face paintings!
The makeup just floored me. Way too many pictures to share but lots of inspiration. Thanks for writing.
It does seem an odd and spooky festival, but as you say for those of us now lacking rituals and tradition, to simply spend time honouring and remembering the ones we have lost would be both restorative and humbling. Loved the Day of The Dead choir costumes.
It was a lovely experience – a real mixture of excitement, color and solemnity. I loved the costumes too!