Guest Blog – ‘Day of the Dead’ by Charlotte Goodman

We are delighted to bring you this Guest Blog by Charlotte Goodman.

It is fascinating to see how people and cultures around the world remember and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. Charlotte tells whiteballoon about this wonderfully vibrant annual event.

Celebrating Day of the Dead

I had already had the privilege of visiting Mexico a few times in my life and had been enchanted by Mexican heritage and culture and particularly the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Deadholiday that is celebrated in late October and early November in Mexico each year. I had never visited at that time of year before and was very keen to find an opportunity to witness first hand this rich tradition where everyone comes together to reflect, remember, pay their respects and celebrate all the loved ones they have lost. In 2022 it was finally time to satisfy my curiosity and I headed to Mexico with my partner for what turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime.

Dipping our toe in the water…

We landed in Mexico City just three hours before the Dia de los Muertos parade that was taking place in the city later that day. Despite the scale of the undertaking the dates are published quite late each year and we had to move our flights, or we would have missed this incredible spectacle and landed just after it had taken place!

Like so many other viewers of the James Bond film Spectre in 2015, it was the exhilarating opening scene featuring the parade that had propelled vibrant Mexico City much higher up our ‘places we would absolutely love to visit’ list. We were as surprised as anyone to discover that the parade did not actually exist before the Director created it, and it was only due to the interest generated by the success of the film that the city decided to introduce a parade one year later in 2016. We joined an estimated crowd of up to one million people lining the streets to get a glimpse of the parade as it passed. The floats, bands, dance troupes and oversized skull sculptures were such a feast for the senses – and it turned out that several of the props and wardrobe items we saw had been donated by the Bond film crew once production had wrapped.  

We were delighted that we even had time to attend a local stadium to watch Lucha libre (traditional Mexican wrestling) later that same night – Saturday nights sure are memorable in Mexico City – if you have managed to swerve drinking too much Mezcal that is!

Diving right in…

We then headed by bus to Oaxaca (pronounced wah-hah-kah) in the South of Mexico which we knew was a very popular tourist destination – there had been much coverage of the fact it was voted the World’s Best City to Visit by Travel and Leisure magazine in 2020. Such was our delight at the Mexico City parade that we had not dared to imagine that it had merely been the warm-up act to what we now know would become the main event.

On arriving in the historic city centre the energy was palpable. Houses, shops, restaurants, hotels and public spaces were highly decorated and had prepared traditional ofrendas (altars) to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. They were adorned with water, food, photos, candles, memorabilia and calaveras (decorative skulls) and bright yellow, orange and red marigolds to guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. It was such an absolute riot of colour and creativity that it almost felt that Instagram had been conceived with this celebration, in this city, in mind.

On 31st October we joined some local friends to visit the Mictlancihuatl and San Sebastian Martir cemeteries in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán – a small city located 5km from Oaxaca. Nothing had prepared us for just how joyful, welcoming and warm the celebration would be. Our friends had tried to explain it to us, but it really has to be seen to be believed. We decided to really immerse ourselves in the experience, we got our faces painted and dressed up – encouraged by locals who invited us to dive deep and celebrate alongside them.

I have mostly been used to graveyards being beautiful, peaceful but sombre spaces where people contemplate often in silence and hushed tones. This was the opposite of that. Families were gathered around graves – eating, drinking Mezcal, sharing memories and stories and could often be heard laughing out loud. Mariachi bands passed through the space stopping to play and sing with families about the lives of their loved ones. It was not sombre at all – it was just breathtakingly beautiful. Those gathered around graves would stop you to show you a photo of their deceased family members and friends – they wanted to tell you all about their lives. It really was such a unique experience – it is no surprise that in 2008, the tradition was included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Coming up for air…

Sadly, we had to continue on our trip before the final night of festivities, but it was evident as we left that the party was already in full swing!

We loved the Mexican locals that we had the privilege of meeting and encountered such incredible generosity, warmth and hospitality for the whole duration of our trip. There is only one thing I would improve about our experience and that is my ability to do it justice in recounting how simply stunning and utterly unforgettable it was. I am still not sure I fully understand how an occasion could be so very magical and yet humbling and grounding all in the same breath.

I have lost a few loved ones in quick succession over the last few years – all of whom I think about fondly and often. I feel so moved and inspired by this rich Mexican tradition that I will now also make time each year to contemplate and celebrate all the loved ones I have lost in a dedicated moment of reflection. After our trip I am more smitten than ever with the idea that in my memory at least, we can all be together once more.

I found Dia de los Muertos to be a really rather wonderful celebration of life and our trip such a vital reminder to always try to live in full colour!

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