Noche de Muertos – remembering the souls of the departed

You might have heard about this typical Mexican tradition or found yourself looking an altar for Noche de Muertos. It seems a little creepy at first, when you see the sugar skulls and images of dancing skeletons. Death in Mexico isn’t necessarily a sad thing. Often celebrations of Noche de Muertos can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.

Noche de Muertos is a tradition that traces back to the Aztecs, Toltecs, Chichimecas and Mayas. Their rituals to honor death were mixed with the Catholic celebrations All-Saints day (Nov 1st) and All-Souls day (Nov 2nd) back in the time of the Spanish conquest. Traditions connected with this holiday include building private altars at home or at the office honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, ‘pan de muertos’ (sweet egg bread) and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts. According to popular belief, during the 1st and 2nd of November the souls of the departed come back to their homes or graves to enjoy the delicious dishes that their families have prepared for them.

Each region has its own way of celebrating Noche de Muertos. For example, in the area around the Lake of Pátzcuaro in Michoacan, the tradition is very different if the deceased is a child rather than an adult. On November 1 of the year after a child’s death, the godparents set a table in the parents’ home with sweets, fruits, pan de muerto, a cross, a rosary (used to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for them) and candles. This is meant to celebrate the child’s life, in respect and appreciation for the parents. There is also dancing with colorful costumes, often with skull-shaped masks and devil masks in the plaza or garden of the town. At midnight on November 2, the people light candles and ride winged boats called mariposas (Spanish for “butterflies”) to Janitzio, an island in the middle of the lake where there is a cemetery, to honor and celebrate the lives of the dead there. Other people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In many places, people have picnics at the grave site as well.

Mazatlan celebrates in its own exuberant way. Home to the biggest beer brewery on the Pacific coast, during Noche de Muertos there is a donkey pulling a cart with barrels of beer from where the alcohol flows freely. The beer cart drives along altars that have been set-up in the historic centre. There is one person that embodies ‘Death’ as a beautiful lady dressed in black with a veil. In the procession there is Sinaloan ‘banda’ music playing live and there are many people that are dressed up as ‘calacas’ (colloquial name for skeletons) that dance to the music. The celebration is not solemn, but more festive. You have to experience it, to see that Noche de Muertos isn’t scary at all!




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