Dia de Los Muertos–Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico–History and Traditions

Dia de los Muertos is a festive, joyous and religious celebration that is one of the most important in Mexico. Families honor the memory of their ancestors and the continuity of life with the belief that the souls of departed loved ones return to visit once a year. A blend of ancient indigenous and European Catholic traditions, Dia de los Muertos is not a time of mourning.  It is believed the practice began long before the Spanish conquest, perhaps as early as the Olmec civilization more than 3,000 years ago. Later cultures — the Toltecs, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec and Aztecs — adopted the early practices.   At the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century, the dominant Aztec celebration was held during the month of Miccailhitonitl presided over by the goddess of the same name (translated to Lady of the Dead).

Day of the Dead Photography Expedition 2011: Don’t miss it!

In an effort to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism, the church incorporated the Aztec celebration with All Saints’ Day and All Hallows Eve (Halloween).   In Oaxaca, the celebrations begin on October 31 and continue through November 2.  Preparations begin weeks in advance.  Although the skeleton is a predominant symbol for both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, the meaning is very different.  In Mexico, the skeleton (calavera) represents the dead playfully mimicking the living and not a macabre symbol at all.

Each Oaxaca village celebrates with parades and processions.  Families make an ofrenda or offering on the home altar and on gravesite.  In Xoxocotlan, the major celebration is at the cemetery on All Hallows Eve, the night of October 31. All Saints’ Day, November 1, is celebrated in San Augustin Etla and San Pablo Villa de Mitla.  In Teotitlan del Valle, the village celebrates at their cemetery on All Souls’ Day, November 2.  Throughout the city of Oaxaca there are calendas or processions throughout this several day period, including those with children dressed in costume.

The Ofrenda or Offering

Home altar rooms are the social center and spiritual hub of Zapotec households.  This is where the family gathers and greets relatives and friends for engagements, weddings, baptisms, birthday parties, and deaths.  Home altars are designed in a specific way to allow the spirits of ancestors to easily return to visit their living loved ones during Day of the Dead.  In addition, businesses, hotels, restaurants, churches, museums and offices will also prepare an altar to honor their dead and await their spirits.  Some altars will have a path of marigold flowers leading to it to help guide the way, depending upon family traditions.  Altars are decorated with the favorite foods and beverages of the deceased along with their photos.   Bread, chocolate, beer, mescal, a favorite soft drink, nuts and fruit, marigolds, sugar cane stalks, and skull shaped candies decorate the altar along with with the incense and candles. The aroma of fragrant flowers, copal incense, and the light of the candles are essential elements in helping the dead find their way back from the spirit world.

Visitors to Oaxaca homes in the city or in a village during this time should not go empty handed!  It is a courtesy to bring a loaf of pan muerto, chocolate, a bottle of mescal or a six-pack of beer.  The hospitality will be reciprocated: you will be offered hot chocolate, a slice of bread and a shot of mescal in true guelaguetza fashion.

The Xoxocotlan Cemetery is a frenzy crowds, candles, flowers, families picnicking, strolling musicians, local costumed revelers and a g-zillion visitors. The sun sets this time of year at around 7 p.m. and that’s when most people arrive.  Even then, it’s difficult to find a parking space and there is a taxi line-up going into town.  There are TWO cemeteries in Xoxo, and if you have time, be sure to see them both.  They are about six blocks apart.  The new cemetery is huge and that’s where the biggest party takes place.  At the entrance is a giant tent with a bandstand and chairs for the audience.  The music ranges from local bands with vocalists to symphony.  Lining the side streets are tented booths selling food and carnival trinkets.  The old cemetery is smaller and more serene.  The grave sites abut each other with few places to walk without stumbling over a candle or a cross.  At the center of this space is a crumbling, ancient church whose roof disappeared long ago.

In Oaxaca city, the Benito Juarez and Abastos Markets are filled with food, flowers, sugar and chocolate and sesame candy skulls, egg bread in various shapes decorated with painted heads of saints, mounds of cinnamon sticks, and fabled Oaxaca chocolate, plus whatever else you can imagine.  You could get lost in the flowers.

So, as we think about Day of the Dead, it is important to challenge our own cultural beliefs by understanding that death in Mexico is considered a positive part of the life cycle and a time for remembrance.

About Day of the Dead: What it is and isn’t!

  • It is not Halloween.  Mexicans have celebrated Day of the Dead for thousands of years.
  • It is not morbid; there are no pictures of dead people, ghosts, witches or devils.
  • It isn’t a cult.  It is a Catholic ritual blended with folk culture.
  • It honors dead relatives, but it does not dwell on death.  It celebrates life, cultural heritage, ancestors, and the meaning and purpose of our own life on earth.
  • Altars or ofrendas are not for ancestor worship, but for offering love and remembrance.
  • It is not a sad ritual, but a joyful one.
  • It is not about fear, but about love.
  • It is not “strange” and is like going to paying respects at a grave, leaving flowers, and lighting a candle.
  • It is not disrespectful; it is a reflection on the cycle of life.

Our ofrenda to you:  Visit Oaxaca and take part in our Day of the Dead Documentary Photography Expedition.

Countdown to Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

October 31–All Hallows Eve

Our family friend, Janet Chavez Santiago, tells us that we don’t want to miss being with them in the village of Teotitlan del Valle on October 31.  This is when the Zapotec villagers go to the local market to buy the fruits and special bread for the altar that is part of each family’s home.  Her brother Eric tells me that this market day in Teotitlan del Valle is one of the largest and most abundant of the year.

November 1–All Saints’ Day

Oaxacan Zapotecs believe that the souls of all their dead relatives will arrive in the altar room of their houses at 3:00 p.m.  So, the family gathers there, eat tamales together, light candles and welcome the spiritual return of their loved ones.  At 5:00 p.m. after the special comida, the practice is to visit the houses of their relatives to pay respects to the souls of the extended family members who have passed.  Janet says that many family visitors come to their house, too, bringing gifts for the altar that include some of the favorite foods of the dead.

November 2–All Souls’ Day

Everyone stays home to rest, to visit more, and to be with the spirits of the dead relatives.  At 3:00 p.m. the souls return to the cemetery and there is a family procession to the graveyard to accompany the souls as they re-enter the graves.  Family members sit by the grave side in solitude and reflection in this village.  The ceremony here is very low-key compared to Xoxocotlan.





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