One of Mexico’s biggest holidays, and the return of deceased loved ones to the realm of the living … find out about Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), celebrated at the end of October, and the beginning of November. What is it? How is it celebrated? And what can you expect on these days in Isla Mujeres?
When you think of Day of the Dead you may think of the American holiday of Halloween, and while some similarities can be drawn between the origins and beliefs of Halloween and the beliefs of Dia de los Muertos, they are not the same holiday. Day of the Dead is a magical tradition and is celebrated from October 31st until November 2nd, it is a huge celebration of life through cultural traditions that go back generations … decorations, costumes, colors, parades, food, and drinks are used to celebrate and remember the dead. You may have seen Disney and Pixar’s movie Coco, which gives a fun, and incredible, animated insight into this holiday which includes and celebrates the dead as their spirits cross from the land of the dead to the land of the living. This holiday is truly a proud and national treasure in Mexico, with beliefs that date back thousands of years to the country's pre-Hispanic routes. In many cultures, the dead are mourned, and death is seen as the final chapter, however, the beliefs around Dia de los Muertos are that the spirit is kept alive through memory and celebration of the deceased’s life.
What is Day of the Dead? And what are the Beliefs Around the Tradition?
Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a celebration of life that dates back thousands of years to pre-Hispanic Mexico. Native groups in Mexico celebrated their dead and believed them to still be part of their community, it was believed that mourning them was disrespectful, as it was not the end of a person’s existence, just the next phase. Instead of mourning their deceased loved ones, they celebrated their lives, honoring their memories. It is a belief that the souls of those who have passed on return to the realm of the living temporarily. These beliefs of some of the indigenous groups in Mexico evolved with the arrival of the Spanish conquest and became intertwined with the Catholic calendar and traditions, and as such Dia de los Muertos now includes some influences from the Catholic church (with the altar and crosses), and takes place annually in Mexico from the end of October to the beginning of November in line with All Saint’s Day, and the end of the harvest season.
Day of the Dead is one of Mexico’s most popular holidays, celebrated across the country. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) added Dia de los Muertos to the UNESCO list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ in 2008, recognizing this expression of culture, and annual event as an important cultural heritage of Mexico, with traditions that have been passed down for generations.
The Beliefs -
It is believed that the dead have a temporary window in which they can cross over from the spirit world to Earth during Dia de los Muertos, the deceased loved ones can return and visit their family and friends and celebrate their lives with them. Altars, or ‘Ofrendas’, are set up in people’s homes and communities to welcome the spirits back, with water to quench their thirst after a long journey, their favorite meals, and items, as well as photos, candles, flowers, and more.
The Traditions -
Day of the Dead is a lively celebration of the deceased, each region in Mexico, and different communities celebrate this event with different traditions, however, some traditions are prominent throughout the country. The altar, ‘Ofrenda’ is the focal point of Dia de los Muertos, built throughout the country in people’s homes, as well as in communal areas and cemeteries, these altars are designed to welcome the spirits of deceased loved ones back.
What is an Ofrenda/Altar? -
Ofrendas are altars that are built by the deceased’s family or friends, these can be built in their private homes, community spaces, and cemeteries, and include offerings laid out for the spirit of their loved one, to welcome them back to earth. An Ofrenda will have four key elements, these are - water, wind, earth, and fire. There is often a glass of water left on the Ofrenda to quench the spirit’s thirst after their long journey. The wind is depicted commonly with Papel Picado, punctured paper - the traditional, colorful tissue paper banners that are used during dia de los Muertos celebrations. Earth is represented by food, most often bread, and the fire by the candles that are lit on the altars, to help the spirits find their way. Other offerings often include photos of the deceased, their favorite meal or food, momentums, Cempasuchil (Flor de Muerto) marigolds (whose colors and scent are said to guide the spirits back), and other items to remember and honor them. In some towns, they will use pathways of marigolds from the deceased’s grave to their Ofrenda to help guide them further. The celebration is truly one of colors, smells, and tastes, with some delicious foods and drinks available.
What Foods and Drinks Are Typical Around Day of the Dead?
During Dia de los Muertos celebrations there are many foods and drinks that you will start to see, to be consumed or used as an offering on the Altars. Pan de Muerto, or bread of the dead is the most popular item of food, found across the country on altars, and being consumed with hot chocolate, or Atole, a corn-based drink. Calaveras, or sugar skulls are colorful candies that are placed on the Ofrendas. Popular foods consumed are also candied pumpkin, tamales, pozole (stew), and in the Yucatan area Pib, which is like a large tamale.
How is Day of the Dead Celebrated on Isla Mujeres?
In previous years events have started on October 28th, with nights of celebrations in Isla Mujeres' Explanada Municipal, the main square, with shows, performances, dances, and music, starting with the celebration of regional traditions from the Yucatan, of Hanal Pixan. This is the local Mayan equivalent of Day of the Dead, with its routes in the indigenous beliefs of the area. Hanal is Mayan for food, and Pixan is Mayan for Soul, so Hanal Pixan translates to the food of the souls, it is a special way that the region of the Yucatan Peninsula celebrates the dead, with offerings of traditional food and drinks. The first night is dedicated to children and the young, the second night is for the adults, and on the third night, there is a mass held, usually in the cemetery. On Isla Mujeres, in 2022, the first event was held in the main square on October 28th, with the Night of the Young, and on the 29th the Night of the Dead. From October 30th other events held were the Night of the Altars, and the Night of the Calaveritas (skulls) where people painted their faces, this was also the night of Halloween (which is also observed by the islanders - see below).
Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead is usually celebrated with a parade ‘Paseo de las Animas’ (Procession of the Souls), this was on the night of November 1st in 2022, the Night of the Souls, and it went from the island’s downtown cemetery, down the main bar and restaurant strip, Avenida Hidalgo, to the main square, Isla Mujeres' Explanada Municipal, where there are altars set up with offerings for the spirits. Islanders will paint their faces to resemble skulls, like the Day of the Dead icon La Catrina, dressed in traditional dress, elaborate dress, and fancy suits. Those on the walk also carry candles, as the light of the candles is thought to guide the dead on their journey to the realm of the living. In the main square, there is usually an exhibition of the altars, with traditional ofrendas available for the public to view.
Isla Mujeres' schedule of events for the Festival of Light and Life Between the Living and the Dead has been released for 2023. If you are visiting the island, check out this program of events ...
- Saturday, October 28th, 7:30 PM ~ The celebrations start by welcoming the souls with the Encendido del Gran Altar - The Lighting of the Grand Altar, in the island's main square, La Explanada Municipal, in downtown Isla Mujeres. Events will begin at 7:30 PM, and the dress code is regional Yucatecan. Expect to see locals wearing regional dresses and shirts, with colorful flowers and embroidery.
- Sunday, October 29th, 7:30 PM ~ Noche de Todos los Santos in the main square - All Saint's Night. Go by to get a taste of the state of Veracruz with the night based on the unique culture, music, food, and traditional dress of the region.
- Monday, October 30th, 7:30 PM ~ The events continue in the main square, with the Noche de Juventudes, Hanal Pixan, The Night of the Young, with the event of Hanal Pixan. On this night, the dress code is regional Yucatecan dress. On this night you can expect performances and participation in the events from young islanders.
- Tuesday, October 31st, 7:30 PM ~ Noche de Calaveritas, and Halloween celebrations in downtown Isla Mujeres. Expect lots of Halloween costumes, the night will be filled with fun, costume competitions, and a show for all the family in the main square. There will also be children trick or treating up and down Avenida Hidalgo,
- Wednesday, November 1st, 7:30 PM ~ The events conclude on this night, with a procession from the island's downtown cemetery, down Avenida Hidalgo, to the main square. On the Noche de la Animas, Night of the Souls, expect many Catrinas and Catrines, with beautiful outfits and face paint to celebrate the souls returning to earth, there will be events after the procession in the main square.
(HOT TIP: Why not book a table on Avenida Hidalgo for dinner for a front-row seat to this evening's parade? - CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR TABLE)
If you are visiting for Halloween don’t forget to bring some ‘treats’ as the island’s downtown area is alive with people from October 31st. Many of the island’s children will trick or treat down the island’s main bar and restaurant strip, Avenida Hidalgo on October 31st, with fun and ‘scary’ outfits, and visitors will often bring little gifts from home to hand out (although it's not mandatory).
Credit for photos from Isla Mujeres- Atenea Gómez Ricalde - Facebook
Thank you for the hard work of President Atenea Gómez Ricalde and her team at the Municipal of Isla Mujeres for providing us with the photos and information, so that we can invite you and keep you up to date with current events on the island.