Tag Archives: day of the dead

Holiday / Festival Dates in Oaxaca

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

While November is the month when we celebrate the Mexican Revolution, virtually all towns and villages throughout the state of Oaxaca have their own festival weeks honoring one saint or another. Such an enumeration would be close to impossible to catalogue in a brief article, if not in a book. However, noting bank and government office closures and commemorative dates typically celebrated with festivities, is manageable.

So here goes, with assistance from the listings in Barbara Hopkins’ book, Oaxaca: Crafts and Sightseeing (3rd edition is 1999, currently out of print).

January 1 – New Year’s Day: National holiday with banks and government offices closed, as well as some retail outlets including restaurants.

January 6 – Epiphany, Day of the Three Kings (Día de los Reyes Magos): Bakeries sell roscas de reyes, to be eaten that evening usually at an extended family gathering. There is gift giving to children. The rosca is typically a large wreath-shaped egg bread with one or more tiny white plastic dolls inside representing the baby Jesus (Niño Diós). Whoever finds the doll(s) must prepare and serve tamales to other members of the same group, at a party on the night of Candlemas – see next item.

February 2 – Candelmas (Candelaria): More recently, when several plastic babies are found by separate people, each might contribute to the meal in different ways. Leading up to and including this date, residents purchase their larger Niño Diós dolls, and outfits for them, last year’s clothing often interchanged with those of relatives and friends. They take their finely dressed dolls to church to be blessed in memory of the presentation of Jesus to the Temple. This is the end of the Mexican Christmas season.

February 5 – Constitution Day: This date commemorates the publication of Mexico’s Constitution in 1917, during the Revolution. A national holiday, now celebrated on the first Monday in February; banks and government offices closed.

Tuesday before Ash Wednesday – Martes de Carnaval: Occurring on March 1, 2022, “Fat Tuesday” represents the last day of freedom before Lent. In cities, but more impressively in towns and villages, there are parades with live music, locals decked out in costumes representative of devils and more.

Fridays during Lent – Paseo de los Viernes de Cuaresma: They vary from locale to locale, but tradition in the state capital dictates sale of flowers at Llano park, for the purchaser to present to girlfriends / lovers.

Fourth Friday of Lent (three weeks before Good Friday) – Day of the Good Samaritan: Celebrated throughout Oaxaca’s central valleys, usually from noon to 2 pm. Churches, businesses, schools, parks and street associations gift fresh sweet juices and sometimes other food stuffs to all passersby.

Palm Sunday until Easter – Holy Week (Semana Santa): Holy week begins on Palm Sunday. Sale of intricately woven palms, visits to seven capital churches, with processions around village/town churches as well. Different locales have different mass traditions for Saturday and Sunday, culminating with the Resurrection. Churches solemnly chime, with the march of silence. Banks and government offices are closed Holy Thursday and Holy Friday.

March 21 – Birthday of Benito Juárez: Juárez, the 26th president of Mexico and the first of indigenous origin, held office from 1858 until his death in 1872. A national holiday with banks and government offices closed.

May 1 – Labor Day (Día del Trabajo): Parades, with banks and government offices closed.

May 3 – Day of the Holy Cross, Mason’s Day (Día del Albañil): Parties for construction workers, crosses affixed on construction sites, typically a complimentary meal for all workers. Often dances in the streets with revelry.

May 5 – Cinco de Mayo): A national holiday commemorating Mexico’s 1862 victory in Puebla over invading French troops; banks and government offices closed.

May 10 and thereafter – Vela Istmeña (Vigil/Festival for people from the Isthmus): In Mexico City and elsewhere, Mexicans who originate from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec gather for public/cultural events, with masses and processions showcasing traditional regional dress.

Last two Mondays of July – Lunes del Cerro (Mondays of the Hill): Entire month of July is festive, in particular those Mondays (date is adjusted if a Monday falls on July 18, the date of death for Benito Juárez); celebrated throughout Oaxaca but especially in the capital – Oaxaca de Juárez. The Guelaguetza is performed throughout the weekend leading up to the Mondays; the Guelaguetza promotes Oaxaca’s rich cultural traditions by showcasing regional song, dress, dance and items locally produced for sale and consumption. Spectacular!

August 15 – Day of the Taxi Driver: Celebrated mainly in the state capital. Taxis and colectivos are adorned with flowers and parade through the streets and in the course of daily work taking fares.

August 31 – Pet Day, Bendición de los Animales (Blessing of the Animals): Performed at the Merced church in the capital and also elsewhere. Residents bring their pets and parade them through the streets all dressed up.

September 16 – Dia de la Independencia (Independence Day): Commemorates indepenence from Spain, proclaimed in 1810. The night before (September 15) at 11 pm, people celebrate El Grito (The Cry), during which the nation’s president and all governors and mayors, with support from police and army, shout aloud re independence, typically with fireworks near government palaces. Spectacular! Banks and government offices are closed on September 16.

October 12 – Día de la Raza (Day of the Race): In Hispanic countries, Columbus Day has become Day of the Race, a celebration of the heritage and culture of peoples who were eliminated or exploited by the Spanish conquest – similar to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which has been substituted for Columbus Day in places in the United States. Banks and government offices are closed.

October 31, November 1. November 2 – Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead): Also celebrated on subsequent dates depending on the locale, especially November 1 (All Saints’ Day) and November 2 (All Souls’ Day). The celebrations combine pre-Hispanic roots with Christianity, and include attending rituals in cemeteries day and night, decorating gravesites and home altars, honoring the departed, and parades through the streets in cities, towns and villages throughout Mexico (comparsas). Oaxaca city and environs, along with Pátzcuaro, are recognized worldwide as the best places to experience Day of the Dead. Again egg bread is traditional, as is construction of elaborate colored sand carpets (tapetes). Spectacular! Banks and government offices are closed on the last two dates.

November 20 – Anniversary of the Mexican Revolution: On this date in 1910, Francisco Madero issued a call to arms to unseat the dictator Porfirio Díaz. A national holiday with parades, sporting events and banks and government offices closed.

December 8, 12, 18 – respectively, celebrations of the Virgins of Juquila, Guadalupe, and Soledad: The celebration for the Virgin of Juquila is regional; for Guadalupe, it is national, with banks and government offices closed; and for Soledad, it is regional, although she is the patron saint of Oaxaca state). There are pilgrimages to Juquila, Mexico City, and Oaxaca City throughout the year, but especially with arrivals on the specific dates, with prayers for miracles, parades, and other festivities.

December 13 – Another Vela Istmeña (see May 10).

December 16 – Start of the Christmas season: Nightly processions (posadas) through the 24th, passing through city, town and village streets, representative of Mary and Joseph seeking a bed for the birth of Jesus. Building of crèches (nacimientos).

December 23 – Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes): In Oaxaca City, the zócalo is adorned with stalls where state residents construct scenes of carved radishes of all sizes, representing market activity, crèches, regional dress and dance, heads of famous Oaxacans, and much more, competing for cash prizes. There are smaller competitions with scenes made of dried flowers and of corn husks and stalks. A uniquely state capital occurrence, with other daytime and evening activities. Noche de Rábanos is over a century old. Spectacular!

December 24 – Calendas de Noche Buena (Processions of Christmas Eve): The final night of posadas, with floats representing neighborhood churches from Oaxaca City neighborhoods, local marching bands, and participants in elaborate dress, all heading to and circling the zócalo. Zócalo attendance spectacular!

December 25 – Christmas Day (Navidad): Mostly celebrated at home with family. A national holiday with banks and government offices closed.

December 31 –Noche de la Cruz del Pedimento (Night of Petition) also Nochevieja (Old Night), Año Nuevo (New Year): Banks closed, and government offices have been on skeleton staff for the past two weeks, until January 2. On a hill near the central valley town of Mitla en route to Santiago Matatlán, stands La Cruz del Milagro, where this day and evening people gather near a tiny chapel and large white cross, praying for their needs and wishes to be met the coming year.

If you don’t have easy access to information on these significant dates and occasions, consider hanging on to this edition of The Eye for quick reference.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Day of the Dead

History
Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.

Altars
The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar. Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the altar. Scattered from altar to gravesite, marigold petals guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar.

Food of the dead
You work up a mighty hunger and thirst traveling from the spirit world back to the realm of the living. At least that’s the traditional belief in Mexico. Some families place their dead loved one’s favorite meal on the altar. Other common offerings:

Common among offerings is pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), , often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolize sorrow.

Sugar skulls are part of a sugar art tradition brought by 17th-century Italian missionaries. Pressed in molds and decorated with crystalline colors, they come in all sizes and levels of complexity.

Costumes
Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls and don suits and fancy dresses to mimic the calavera (skull) called Catrina, who represents the decadence of the wealty just before the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Many revelers wear shells or other noisemakers to amp up the excitement—and also possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.

Adapted from National Geographic

Allhallowtide: The Sacred, the Sublime, and the Silly

By Brooke Gazer

When Hernán Cortés sailed for Mexico, he was seeking fame and fortune, but the priests who followed had a more challenging purpose. They wanted to save souls and gain converts for the Catholic church. Many Aztec rituals, like those surrounding the Death Goddess Mictecacihuatl, appalled them, but these practices were so deeply ingrained that some could be traced back to the Toltec Period (800-1000 CE). In Mexico, as in much of the New World, conversion would require compromises and one technique was merging existing native rituals with Catholic ones. With this in mind, they moved the festival of Mictecacihuatl from July to November, and incorporated Christian concepts.

The notion of rearranging festival dates and focus was not a novel one. In 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV created a day to commemorate holy martyrs. Two hundred years later, Pope Gregory IV moved and expanded it to include all saints. This three day celebration became known in Europe as Allhallowtide – October 31, November 1 and 2.

For traditional Catholics, November 1 is All Saints’ Day; it may also be referred to as Day of the Innocents or Little Angels. Catholics are encouraged to pray for martyrs and saints as well as deceased children, who are assumed to be innocent. November 2 is All Souls’ Day, when Catholics pray for the souls of everyone else, including those who may have gone to Purgatory and are awaiting entry to heaven.

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated on the same dates, but in Mexico it bears little resemblance to what Pope Gregory IV originally had in mind. Deceased children are remembered on November 1 and adults on November 2. However, people are not praying for their souls to enter heaven; they are awaiting a reunion. Many traditional Mexicans believe that death is part of a continuing cycle, and that on this hallowed night, the spirits of their ancestors are able to walk among them.

Since the dead return at night, people begin sitting vigil the nights of October 31 and November 1. After dark, Mexican families gather at home in front of ofrendas (altars for the departed), and at the gravesite. They offer favorite foods and beverages while sharing stories about the deceased. It’s a joyful time, about celebrating the life of the person, not mourning their loss. One might compare this to an Irish wake, except that this is an annual event, and the spirits of the deceased are believed to consume the offerings left for them. Believers will tell you that the flavors are altered after the dead have inhaled their essences.

In addition to believing that a loved one may return to enjoy earthly pleasures, Mexicans have continued other indigenous practices. Marigolds, called cempasúchil from the Nahuatl (Aztec), were believed to awaken the dead. Graves and the altars displaying candy, alcohol, favorite foods, and small mementos, are heavily adorned with these distinct orange flowers. On a practical note, it bears mentioning that the pungent fragrance of marigolds repels ants, so that chocolate and other treats are not overrun by these tiny pests. Those ancient priests knew more than we give them credit for.

Candles also play a major role and cemeteries are brightly lit with hundreds of velas as families gather to welcome their loved ones back to earth. Candles are part of Catholic rituals that have merged into this festival and it is believed that the light from the flames helps to guide the spirit home.

If you have an opportunity to visit a cemetery in Mexico during this time, it is an awe-inspiring experience. People are proud of the artistry employed in decorating their loved one’s graves and will welcome you as long as you are respectful. Oaxaca is one of the most traditional states in Mexico, so it stands to reason that this is an excellent place to experience this spectacular celebration of life. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, this might not be the year to visit.

While not all Mexicans celebrate Día de los Muertos, most do – if only to respect their ancestors. It is a lovely ritual, like agnostics decorating a tree and exchanging gifts in December. Adorning a grave or an altar is way to remember loved ones and allowing ourselves to do this is a healthy tradition that we might all benefit from.

This holiday should not be confused with the festival that we call Halloween. Since they share the same origins, the date overlaps, but this is where the similarity ends. During the medieval period in Ireland and Britain, Christians and pagans gathered around bonfires on Allhallowtide to ask for God’s protection from the evil in the world. It became tradition to dress in costumes of saints and demons and act out battles of good vs. evil. Somehow when this antiquated tradition crossed the Atlantic, it was adapted into a frivolous candy fest for children.

Halloween pales in comparison to Mexico’s spectacle, seeming rather crass to those who never grew up with it. For a child, however, the allure of dressing like a kitten or maybe as Superman and filling a sack with free Chiclets, Reese’s Pieces and mini Hershey bars is irresistible. Even as far south as Huatulco, this American/Canadian tradition is creeping into the culture. Each year, I notice more kids roaming our streets and begging for treats. An interesting twist, however, is that in Mexico time has a different perspective, so that local kids have cleverly extended October 31 into a multi-night candy grab.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa,
an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco.
http://www.bbaguaazul.com.