“I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return.” – Frida Kahlo
Day of the Dead is one of the most well-known aspects of Mexican culture. I believe this was made even more mainstream after the James Bond movie showcased a parade of skeletons in Mexico City. Let me start off by saying that such a parade was only created after the movie came out. And truthfully, I am not sure it is worth it despite the gorgeous media pictures. Several friends got pickpocketed, and the short ones could not see a thing. It was the Day of the Lost iPhones and back views.
Regardless of how much more mainstream this holiday has become (have you seen Pixar’s movie, Coco?), Day of the Dead is still the most folkloric tradition I have ever experienced as an expat. Last year I was working in a preschool, and each class had to set up an altar. Mexicans put so much effort into creating beautiful altars that not only showcase Mexico’s colors but flavors. Altars are made for specific families or people. One class in the preschool set up an altar for Walt Disney. You can find altars for Frida and Diego in Xochimilco, and some people make altars in their homes for their deceased family members.
The idea is that on this day, our ancestors are allowed to return home to their descendants, paying us a visit to celebrate life and death. “Mexicans like to make fun of everything, even death,” said one of my co-workers from last year. The altars are beautifully decorated and replenished with food offerings for the souls of those whose pictures are displayed. And while Halloween is a day before Day of the Dead, it really has nothing to do with the American concept. Nowadays, the cultures have mixed and some of that beautiful tradition has been lost in the horrific costumes and gory decorations (I am not a fan of bloody things or scaring others for fun).
Day of the Dead is not Halloween, and I wish there was a way to stop these two holidays from overlapping in Mexico City. The decorations for Day of the Dead are far from somber. In fact, they are my favorite part of Mexican culture. There is “papel picado” in hot pink, orange, yellow, royal blue, and green colors in the streets, restaurants, and businesses. Skulls are painted in bright colors, and bright orange flowers can be found in houses. The idea is that these flowers light up the path for our ancestors to find their way home. It is, after all, a long and dark trip from the After Life. Once the souls arrive, they can enjoy the food offerings from the altar.
As time has passed and civilization has transformed, not everyone holds these beliefs in their hearts. A lot of it is simply about another day off where you can eat delicious food. One of the traditional things to eat is called “pan de muerto” (dead bread). It has a buttery taste, it is softer than a donut, and it is covered in white sugar. The top is made to look like the bones of a dead body. It is best enjoyed with hot chocolate, but I personally love it with milk.
The most beautiful thing about this holiday is the happiness of it. The idea that we are immortal in a sense, and that we should celebrate the cycle of life and death is inspiring. Even if you do not believe in the After Life, is it not wonderful to take a day to celebrate those who came before you? To remember loved ones you might have lost, and to think of them as being happy and full of life, no matter where they might be.
This Day of the Dead, I am thinking of my dad. Wherever he might be, I hope he can see all the places I have been since we last saw each other, and that he too, can enjoy a trip back with all the Mexican ancestors.