Day of the Dead in Mexico: a time to celebrate

Anyone lucky enough to have already seen the latest Bond film, Spectre, will have been treated to the most fabulous opening sequence shot during Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations.

The Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is not the morbid event it may at first appear: to the contrary, it is an uplifting fiesta, celebrated mainly in Mexico, to remember and pay tribute to friends and relatives who have died.

It is believed that the souls of the deceased are believed to return to earth on this day, which falls on 2nd November each year, in conjunction with the Catholic holy festival of All Saints’ Day (Día de Todos los Santos) on 1st November.

As with many Mexican rituals, the Day of the Dead has pre-Hispanic roots, dating back some 2,500-3,000 years to the Aztecs, Mayas, Olmecs and other indigenous civilisations. In Aztec times the festival was celebrated in August, the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, and for an entire month. In modern-day Mexico, celebrations take place in November, and the day before Día de los Muertos, 1st November, is dedicated to lost children and infants: this is known as Día de los Angelitos, or Day of the Little Angels, as children who die are believed to automatically become angels.

On the Day of the Dead families traditionally build altars in their homes and visit graveyards to commune with their lost loved ones. They take offerings, or ofrendas, of sugar skulls, garlands and flowers (often marigolds, which have ancient ceremonial importance), and personal gifts such as photos and favourite foods of the departed. It is thought that these will encourage the souls of the dead to visit, and pillows and blankets are even laid out so that they can rest after their long journey. Many people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. But it is a happy atmosphere that prevails, with dancing, feasting and the recounting of affectionate anecdotes.

One of the best places to experience Day of the Dead is around the beautiful region of Pátzcuaro in Mexico’s Western Central Highlands. Mexicans and sightseers flock here to remember their loved ones and join in the renowned festivities, which include traditional music and dances, candlelit vigils and picturesque ceremonies.

Cactus offers Spanish courses in 4 locations across Mexico, including Oaxaca which is famed for its Day of the Dead celebrations. Spanish courses start each week, from one week upwards, and can be combined with accommodation and meals with a local family – the perfect way to immerse yourself in the language and culture.

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