Isla Mujeres Mystery ~ Lynda L. Lock

Our neighbourhood monsters!

 When you combine the cultures of England, Canada, USA, and Mexico you get a one-night celebration that turns into a week of candy mooching and fun, mixed in with ancient family rituals honoring their dead relatives.  The Halloween that most North Americans are familiar with is, of course, October 31st, or in some parts of the USA such as Ohio there is also the added celebration of Beggar’s Night on October 30th.  Here, our European-North American celebration is followed by the two Mexican national holidays, the Day of the Dead for children on November 1st and the Day of the Dead for adults observed on November 2nd.  

Rituals celebrating the lives of dead ancestors had been performed by the cultures of the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, Maya, and Totonac civilizations for at least 3,000 years.   It was common practice to keep skulls and display them during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.  The festival which was to become El Día de los Muertos fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, near the start of August, and was celebrated for the entire month.

El Día de los Muertos in San Miquel de Allende
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Central America in the 15th century they were shocked at the existing pagan practices, and in an attempt to convert the locals to Catholicism moved the popular festival to the beginning of November to coincide with the All Saints and All Souls days.  All Saints’ Day is the day after Halloween, which was in turn based on the earlier pagan ritual of Samhain, the Celtic day and feast of the dead.  So the question is – which culture actually started this interesting celebration?

Sugar Skulls on sale – photo credit R&L Grierson

The Day of the Dead holiday is celebrated joyfully in Mexico with food, music, parades in the bigger cities and elaborate costumes.  The mood is much lighter than Halloween, with the emphasis on celebrating and honoring the lives of the dead, rather than fearing evil or malevolent spirits. 
My favourite place to be at this time of year is in San Miguel de Allende in the mountains closer to Mexico City.  This city really celebrates the occasion.
Walking around the downtown area of San Miguel is the best way to discover a number of the beautiful private altars dedicated to deceased family members.   The public display in the town square in front of the cathedral is decorated with thousands of colourful paper flags, similar to the “snowflakes” that we made in grade school with paper and blunt-nosed scissors.   In a separate market off the square there are many stalls of vendors selling a multitude of candles, and a huge selection of offerings for the altars. 

Day of the Dead decorations on a tomb

 Here on Isla Mujeres the families celebrate the event in a similar fashion, but not with the beautiful public displays that are in the centre of San Miguel.  We have a three or four-day long “trick or treat” barrage from the various island kids.  They start around October 31st trick-or-treating at houses and businesses until November 2nd or 3rd, sometimes the 4th.  Whenever the whim strikes them.   As with most kids they like candy as their reward, however peso coins are also happily accepted.  We typically see various small groups of kids out and about with older siblings, or a parent, collecting goodies but nothing like the all out attack by hundreds of costumed monsters and space aliens that invade our Canadian and American neighbourhoods every Halloween. 

A number of the kids wear simple costumes of face paint and dark clothes – done up to resemble devils, or skulls.  There are Halloween costumes for sale in all of the bigger department stores but they are not as popular as in the USA and Canada.   (In our previous neighbourhood in Summerland BC, Canada, our adult neighbours took great delight in trick-or-treating with a glass of wine in hand, knocking on various doors asking for more wine.  Very civilized in my opinion!) 

Two more neighbourhood monsters!

 By November 1st the graveyards will be awash in beautiful flowers, simple bouquets or fancy arrangements some in fresh flowers and some in plastic.  Walking through the various neighbourhoods is a great way to see the family alters decorated with photos, toys, candles, candy, sugar skulls, bottles of tequila or beer, hot food in pretty dishes, and marigolds, lots of marigolds as this particular flower it thought to attract the souls of the dead towards the offerings.  Some families leave a pillow and blanket outside the family home to provide a resting place for their loved ones.  In many places, including Isla Mujeres, people have picnics at the gravesite of their family members.  It’s an event that I so much want to take photos of, but because this is such an emotionally private time for families, I have to keep my distance and respect their privacy.  We truly enjoy the blending and mixing of the various cultures.

The Author and her handsome Editor

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