Flickering candles illuminate a petal-strewn trail to an altar laden with garlands of cempasuchil or orange marigolds and velvety red cockscomb flowers, crosses and images of saints, fruit and gourds full of food and drink. The scent of aromatic copal incense fills the air. The time of year that Mexico observes one of its richest and most colorful traditions, the Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos on November 1 and 2 is fast approaching. Everywhere you look stores are full of pan de muerto sweet bread, mounds of sugar candy skulls, whimsical representations of skeletons or La Catrina (Death) and sheets of cut tissue paper in vivid colors.
At this time of year, Mexicans believe that the souls of the departed are permitted to return to the world of the living for a short time and they welcome their loved ones back with elaborate altars decorated with flowers, the favorite food and drink of the deceased, water, fruit, treasured possessions, photos, toys and other offerings. They visit the cemetery where the deceased is buried and hold candlelit vigils by the grave; they take part in masses, processions and even serenades to honor them. According to tradition, the souls of children or angelitos return to earth on November 1, and adults on All Souls’ Day (November 2).
The Day of the Dead tradition has its roots in ancient Aztec, Mayan and Purepecha culture and was adopted by 16th-century Spanish missionaries, who transformed it into a syncretism of pre-Hispanic customs and Catholic ritual. Given its importance, UNESCO granted it World Heritage status in the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity category in 2008.
Xcaret Festival of Life & Death
In the Riviera Maya, visitors can learn about this extraordinary outpouring of faith at Xcaret Park, where for the ninth year running, the Festival of Life & Death will take place from October 30 to November 2. This year the Festival’s special guest is Michoacan, a state famous for its rich heritage, including three of the country’s cultural offerings that have been declared UNESCO World Heritage: the Day of the Dead customs, Pirecua music and Mexican cuisine.
A delegation of 250 musicians, dancers, actors, artists, craftsmen and chefs from Michoacan will join Mayan communities from Quintana Roo and Yucatan and some of Xcaret’s 300 performers in Festival events. The program features two concerts hosted by acclaimed Mexican actor Ignacio Lopez Tarso and world-famous tenor Fernando de la Mora; Pirecua music performed by the Tata Vasco Orchestra, Bola Suriana and Los Caporales harpists among others, the theater representation of Purepecha legends and traditional dances from Michoacan such as Los Viejitos and Danza del Pescado.
A huge altar from Janitzio, the island in Lake Patzcuaro famous for its Day of the Dead processions and vigils, will have pride of place in the traditional exhibition of altars laden with flowers, food and other offerings.
Festivalgoers will be able to sample cuisine associated with Day of the Dead celebrations in Michoacan, Quintana Roo and the Yucatan and see exhibits by Michoacan artists and handicrafts produced by communities in the three states. As part of the Festival route through the park, visitors will see the altars and the traditional Mexican cemetery full of gravestones painted in bright colors and with epitaphs celebrating the person’s life and the things he or she loved in life
Mayan Hanal Pixan
The Mayan Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixán, which means “feast of souls.” Throughout the Yucatán, families make the pilgrimage to the cemetery to visit the graves of their loved ones and erect altars to honor the souls of children and adults.
Tables set with offerings of mucbilpollo, large chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit, and dishes of tan-chucua, a thick corn drink flavored with crushed cacao beans, pepper and aniseed are placed outside the house. Pumpkins, squash, corn, bread, fruit such as mandarin oranges and sugar cane, sweets, honey cakes and flowers are added and the candles are lit. Incense burns, prayers are said and as night falls on November 1, the Maya believe that the dead draw near to dine. The next day it is the turn of the living; they eat the mucbilpollo, washing it down with gruel, chocolate or balche, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and the bark of a tree.
Where else to see Day of the Dead Altars
Guests staying at Royal Resorts will be able to see altars on display at The Royal Sands and The Royal Haciendas and at The Royal Market. They will also be able to sample pan de muerto, which is traditionally served with hot chocolate.
Altars and other Day of the Dead symbols will also be on display at Cancun Maya Museum and in Las Palapas Park in Downtown Cancun and in Playa del Carmen.
In neighboring Yucatán, altars can be seen in Mayan villages and in larger towns throughout the state. In Valladolid altars are erected in the main square and outside San Bernardino de Siena Convent, and in Merida, local people and visitors can stroll along the Paseo de las Animas (the path of the souls), which follows Calle 66 between La Ermita and the City Cemetery and admire over 150 altars erected by local schools, universities and businesses.
Further afield, Mexico’s most famous Day of the Dead celebrations take place in Michoacán, Oaxaca, Veracruz and at Mixquic on the outskirts of Mexico City.
For more information on the Festival of Life and Death at Xcaret ask at the Thomas More Travel desk in your resort. If you book a trip to Xcaret during the Festival you will be able to see the altars and participate in the events, which take place in the evening.