Hallowe'en and All Saints' Day | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Hallowe'en and All Saints' Day

When I first read about Mexican children gnawing on sugar skulls, I thought: These people are really morbid. How can death be cheerful? How badly are their children being traumatized?

Well, of course, the Day of the Dead is not about tragedy or loss or moldering bones. But without actually being there, how could we gringos be expected to understand it?

So now we are here. What a privilege to reside in Mexico, and to join in celebrating this most wonderful and warm holiday.

On the Day of the Dead Mexican families go to the cemetery to commune with loved ones who have gone before. They honor the deceased by decorating their graves, and they share some hours with them, conversing, singing, picnicking. They believe that the spirits of their forebears return to join them in a comfortable, happy family reunion.

The Day of the Dead is the last of a series of three holidays, each after the other. October 31st. is of course, Halloween—somewhat toned down from the U. S. holiday. Then we have All Saints' Day—November 1st. I don't see a whole lot of saint honoring going on, but then I didn't go into any churches, so maybe I missed it. And finally, November 2nd. is the big event—El Dia de los Muertos. Here's a look at what's been happening.


October 31: Halloween.

Trick or treating, wandering around in costumes, jack-o-lanterns, witches and such don't figure much in Mexican life. But they're beginning to catch on.

Children with plastic bags or little plastic jack-o-lantern baskets come up to you and say, "Deme una favorita" (Gimme a treat). They'll accept candy or pesos.


This trick-or-treater is waiting for a handout from a costume and candy vendor, whose stall is one of the few I saw dedicated to Halloween (as opposed to Day of the Dead), with masks and a Spiderman cape on offer. The boy apparently comes from a poor home: His costume consists in its entirely of red makeup smeared on his face.

For more than a week leading up to the holidays, vendors in tents set up shop in the Plaza Civil and other locations around San Miguel. Most of them sell candy.


Here a muchacha, held by her mamá, stuffs her face with a candy lamb while her abuela (grandma) rummages in her handbag for a couple of pesos to pay for it.

(Note how mamá effortlessly holds her six-year-old one-handed. Mexican children are held and carried much more than their Norteamericano counterparts. Consequently, they rarely fuss and cry, and their mothers are really strong.)

Yes, kids don't munch on candy skulls exclusively. In fact, most of the figures, called alfeñique, are modeled on animals, fruits, and toys.


Part of the decoration of graves and altars includes candles, sold at dedicated stalls.


The prices are in pesos, so the small white candles on the left cost about 45 cents.

(I would ask my friend, Paul Latoures, photographer extraordinaire, to lighten up when he sees these images. They were taken in low light without flash using a hand-held camera—f2.8 was my widest aperture. So gimme a break, Paul. They're not that noisy. Or blurry. Or whatever, given the shooting conditions. Did I mention the crowds? The vendors shooing me away? Sheesh! Critics!)

All over town you can see signs of the approaching holidays.


Here in front of the Parroquoia, San Miguel's iconographic church, is an image of yet another Mexican icon, Katrina, fashioned after the famous drawing by José Guadalupe Posada.


What a beauty she is, with her high-style hat, her toothy smile and her bony décolletage.


November 1: All Saint's Day

Truckloads of flowers have come into town overnight. Impromptu flower stalls have been set up near the Tianguis Ignacio Ramirez, the Mercado de San Juan de Dios and other locations around town.


Orange marigolds are the traditional flower, found on most graves and altars.


This altar honors Lic. José Vasconcelos, a deceased prominent citizen whose family is connected with the Vasconcelos school, where I volunteered as an English teacher for the last three years. The altar contains his picture, flowers, candles, sugar skulls and candy lambs, and a few of his favorite foods: tamales, a yam, jicama and sweet rolls. Gifts for his returning spirit. Often you see cigarettes, or bottles of tequila on altars, always with a family member nearby to keep an eye on them.

Flower paintings appear on the pavement and papeles picados (elaborately cut tissues) fly overhead.


Flower paintings contain a lot of orange, owing to the availability of inexpensive marigolds.

After night falls on All Saints' Day, people crowd into the Jardin—the central plaza—to party. Mariachis play old favorites. (I swear, if I hear Cielito Lindo one more time...)


Ghouls come out to dance...


... or to see and be seen.


All of this has been the warm-up. Tomorrow is The Day of the Dead—the main event.