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.

Cinco de mayo: a day of history and celebration in Mexico

5th May is an important and fun date for Mexicans all over the world

Cinco de Mayo is an annual festivity celebrating the unexpected victory of Mexican forces over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on 5th May, 1862. Although it is an unofficial Federal holiday, it is one that holds plenty of meaning for Mexicans in their home state of Puebla as well as those who reside in the US.

In Mexico, 5th May has become a day to celebrate Mexican heritage and as such people come out in force, dressed in traditional dress and ready to enjoy the food, drink and dance that typically accompany Cinco de Mayo festivities. These are usually limited to the state of Puebla, where the battle originally took place.

North of the border, in the US, Cinco de Mayo has also taken on an importance significance, mostly in areas that have a high population of people with Mexican descendency. In these areas, the day is usually seen as a celebration of the culture of Americans with Mexican ascendency, but is often enjoyed by other Americans regardless of their origin. Music and dancing are an important element of Cinco de Mayo celebrations, with baile folklorico and mariachi displays taking place each year in the center of Los Angeles. American schools take the opportunity to educate students about Mexican history, and traditional religious symbols such as the Virgin of Guadalupe are also revered at this time.

Elsewhere in the world, Cinco de Mayo celebrations are limited but certainly newsworthy! Mexican beer is enjoyed on the Mediterranean island of Malta, an air guitar competition takes place each year in the exotic Cayman Islands, and a Canadian sky diving club near Vancouver holds a celebratory skydiving event. It may be one of the smaller festivals in the Latin calendar but it is certainly one worth catching if you can.

Cactus runs Spanish immersion courses in locations across Mexico, and also Spanish evening courses throughout the year in the UK.