Have you ever eaten a sugar skull while watching a giant dancing skeleton dressed like an old lady? Well, we certainly had these kinds of new experiences at the beginning of the month during the Day of the Dead celebration. It lasted from the night of the 31st until the end of the day on November 2nd.
The holiday originates from Indigenous (for example, Aztec) beliefs that the dead come back to visit on one certain day of the year. Of course, it has changed slightly over the years through the influence of Catholicism, for example. Those that celebrate the holiday in it’s more “religious” form set up offerings and altars in their homes with food so that the dead can absorb the essence of the food after their long journey back to visit their families. They also decorate the offerings with brightly colored flowers (specifically one type of very bright orange flower) and candles. Someone told me that the belief is that the dead are “blind” and the lights and flowers help them to find the offering of their family, but I’m not sure on that one. Especially in rural Mexico, some people really do believe that the dead are coming back and some even spend the night in the cemetery celebrating. The offerings contain foods and drinks that their loved ones would enjoy, but the focus of the holiday is about celebrating death and accepting the reality of death with a positive (and sometimes humorous) attitude.
In the city, the holiday is not quite as personal and religious. People typically eat pan de muertos (a cinnamon sugar bread that is literally called “Dead Bread”), hot chocolate, and sugar skulls. Contests and games bring groups together, and sometimes people dress up like La Catrina. La Catrina has been embraced as an iconic image of Day of the Dead. She was created by a printmaker named Jose Guadalupe Posada. In part, she represents the humorous part of death and that no matter if you’re rich or poor in life, you’re going to die. And a skeleton dressed like a rich old lady is ridiculous.
It was an extremely colorful and communal holiday (which is why most people in the city like celebrating it), but it’s also interesting to reflect on the undertones of Indigenous religion, and how those interact with culture and Christianity.
This offering was one of the only offerings we saw that was closest to a “real” day of the dead memorial. It was dedicated to a young girl that died about 10 years ago and the offering contained toys and food that we suppose that the girl enjoyed in life.
At the UNAM, all of the different faculties (schools) have a competition to set up the coolest offerings on the Islas (the main area of campus). It has little to do with celebrating the holiday “religiously”, and it feels like a homecoming float competition more than anything. Here are a few pictures of students setting up their offerings during the day (the big scene is at night with all the candles lit!)
This is one of my favorites- Don Quixote on his horse. Here’s the irony: it was made by the veterinary school, and the last time I checked, horses don’t have bones in their tails… looks like someone needs to pay attention in vet class.