Dia de los Muertos / The Day of the Dead, or more aptly, the Days of the Dead in Mexico, are celebrated the day after Halloween, November 1 and 2. All these two holidays have in common with Halloween is proximity on the calendar and the sharing of a skeleton or two.
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is not a scary ghost and goblins running in the night Mexican adaptation. The holiday is for honoring, celebrating and remembering family that has gone before. It serves to educate young family members with their ancestors by visiting grave sites, cleaning and adorning the crypts with flowers and gifts for the departed. November 1 is usually set aside to honor dead infants and children, "angelitos" or little angles and November 2 for honoring those who died as adults.
The celebration goes back to pre-Columbian times. Aztec cultures celebrated their ancestry in a similar holiday in late July. Rather than abolish the pagan ritual the Spanish move the holiday to November 1 and 2 to coincide with All Saints day and All Souls day.
As with many ancient cultures, the pre-Columbia dead were buried along with possessions that would help them trough the next life. Their remembrance on this day also serves to 're-supply' the departed.
A calaca is a figure of a skull or skeleton most commonly associated with the Day of the Dead, although they are made all year round. Tracing their origins from Aztec culture, calacas placed in dioramas depicting an event or fulfilling some need of the dead, as a family scene or fiesta. As with other aspects of the holiday calacas are generally depicted as joyous rather than mournful figures.
At the same time our European relatives were depicting death with scary skeleton headed angels, the Aztec culture was celebrating death as the welcome and pleasant after-life end to the struggles of the early bonds. They are often shown wearing festive clothing, dancing, and playing musical instruments to indicate a happy afterlife. Drawn on the Mexican belief that dead souls do not like to be thought of sadly, and that death should be a joyous occasion. This goes back to Aztec ideology, the holiday and the unique perspective on death were merged into the Catholic invasion of the 16th and 17th century.
Celebrations vary throughout Mexico. Some celebrations involve groups running through the streets, carrying a 'dead man' in an open coffin. The dead man smiles and waves at the crowd and they respond with oranges and little candies. Revelers wear masks of skeletons and cloaks, bringing to mind the Grim Reaper.
One of the most famous Days of the Dead celebration in Mexico is found in Mixquic, Mexico, once an outlying village, it is now part of the greater Mexico City area. On the shores of a now drained lake, the pueblo has perhaps the most ornate celebration with candle light processions and cemetery events.
Perhaps made the most famous by the movie "Once upon a Time in Mexico" in the fictitious story of a Mexican coupe thwarted by Antonio Banderas, his guapa side-kick Salma Hayek and dark CIA operative Johnny Depp in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.
Here in Baja, the celebration is a little more reserved, and a family event. On the 1st and 2nd of November, families visit the graves of their departed in the 'pantheon'. Maintenance of the grave site, decorations with flowers, particularly marigolds and offerings of small treats and most commonly a shot of tequila.
It is also a social sharing time. In addition to sharing remembrances with other family members that show up at the grave site, the living socializes with the other living in the cemeteries, for an event that can be a bit un-nerving to North Americans.
Pantheon across the peninsula become brightly decorated and a sight to see, when jammed with family members. As a tourist without loved ones in the cemetery, avoid the crowds, be considerate of those who do have family there and visit for your photo safari on the 3rd of November.
Small shrines are also constructed in the privacy of the home. The photos of the dead are displayed along with personal items candles, food and tequila offerings.
It all stems from a different relationship with Death than is common in our Northern European-based culture. In the Indian culture of Mexico Death is a woman, known as la Flaca, la Huesuda, la Pelona or La Catrina (the Skinny, the Boney, the Baldy or the Fancy Lady. I never did like the image of being cut down as grain by the Grim Reaper. The thought that, after a hard life, full of toil, to be taken home to rest by The Fancy Lady where all your departed relatives are partying hardy... much more appealing.