Day of the Dead in San Cristóbal

Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday honoring the lives of the deceased. Its origins can be traced back to pre-Hispanic times, when the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl reigned as Queen of the underworld, keeper of bones and Lady of the Dead. Catholic influences brought by the Spanish made the holiday evolve into the current extravagant celebration taking place between the 31st of October and the 2nd of November.

The 31st of October marks the beginning of the construction of the altars. They were sprouting everywhere in San Cristóbal de las Casas – in private homes, shops and even bars. Fliers were also being distributed, showcasing a route where everyone could visit all the local altars on public display.

day of the dead san cristobal mexico

There were also plenty of skeletons and skulls – made of wood or sugar, tiny or life-size.

day of the dead san cristóbal mexico

San Cristóbal also held an altar contest. They were built in the afternoon, mostly embellished with traditional orange marigolds, colloquially known as the flower of the dead.

day of the dead san cristobal mexico

In the evening, the panel of judges heard the contestants explain the stories behind their altars and chose a winner.

Dia de Muertos Altar

All altars featured photos of the deceased and various offerings (ofrendas). The items on offer were both traditional, such as “Pan de Muerto” or “Bread of the Dead”, and personal. Basically, it is custom to display items loved by the deceased, be it beans, alcohol or cigarettes.

day of the dead altar san cristobal mexico

In San Cristóbal de las Casas, the Day of the Dead celebrations would be held at the Panteon Municipal. Wanting to visit before the full festivities were under way, we hopped on a “colectivo” and went to check it out.

To us, the first striking feature was the architecture. We saw the typical stone slab on the ground, but many graves looked more like proper houses than a resting place for the departed – some even had patios and benches.

day of the dead san cristobal mexico

The richer ones were not only colorful but also bigger than some apartments in a European capital.

day of the dead san cristobal mexico

The 1st of November is dedicated to dead children, and is named Day of the Little Angels (Día de los Angelitos). Their relatives bring gifts and toys to the cemetery, and remember a life cut too short.

day of the dead mexico

The 2nd of November is the big day, when the whole family descends upon the cemetery to not only remember their dead but also eat, drink and laugh with them.

This is by no means a morbid affair. Unlike what occurs in other parts of the world, in Mexico the dead are not feared, but welcomed. After all, they’re family, shortly stopping by to visit and have a taste of earthly indulgences.

day of the dead san cristobal mexico

There is also music, to enlighten the spirits and praise the memory of those no longer walking our world.

day of the dead san cristobal mexico

As the day progresses, several groups of mariachi roam the cemetery, singing songs of joy and sorrow.

day of the dead san cristobal mexico

The cemetery shines in color for the Day of the Dead. Derelict graves are repainted in bright colors and flowers are placed in every nook and cranny, infusing the air with the fresh scent of the living.

day of the dead san cristobal mexico

We meandered through the Panteon Municipal like friendly ghosts, trying to be respectful of our surroundings and smiling at strangers, who invariably smiled back as they tended to their affairs.

day of the dead san cristobal mexico

As the cemetery began to overflow with people bearing flowers, food and plenty of beer, the atmosphere became increasingly festive.

The Day of the Dead celebrations last well into the night, until the sky is lighted by candles and the last spirit says goodbye for another year, hopefully satiated and willing to once again embrace the ultimate truth. As the epitaph reads at the cemetery’s main entrance:

Life is an illusion

Death is the reality

Here begins the Kingdom of Truth

day of the dead san cristobal mexico

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16 Responses

  1. Cinetraveler says:

    Wow – what a great post! I had no idea about the separate days – the first for children and the second for everyone else. Love your photos as well!

    • FW North says:

      Hola! Thank you, you’re very kind. We loved the whole idea of celebration and conviviality, which is so strikingly different from our own experiences growing up in southern Europe. Good luck!

  2. Dalene says:

    Love that photo of the man with his accordian. 🙂

  3. Luis says:

    Hola Don Ricardo!
    Como estan? Que bonita pagina! Felicidades! Sere uno de tus seguidores. Los recordamos con mucho cariño.
    Espero verlos un dia en el futuro. Si vendo muchas clases de español e ingles en linea, o vendo mucho ambar: los alcanzamos por un rato.
    Un abrazo amigo!
    Y por favor te me cuidas! Aunque tienes a una gran compañera para ayudarse mutuamente.

    Saludos desde San Cristobal

    • FW North says:

      Hola Don Luis!
      Muchas gracias por sus palabras. Estamos bien y con mucha curiosidad en conocer Guatemala. El Lago Atitlán es muy hermoso – deberían visitar-lo! Que venda mucho ambar y que nos alcancen rápido 🙂 Un gran abrazo!

  4. I never really thought of San Cristobal as a destination for Day of the Dead as it is so heavily influenced by Guatemalan culture but it seems to have a very Mexican way of celebrating it. The altar route sounds like a great idea and those crypts are palatial nothing like in Oaxaca’s cemeteries where many of the gravestones are crumbling — a really interesting post!

    • FW North says:

      Thanks a lot, Michele! Yeah, we were quite impressed with the palatial tombstones 🙂 Although less renowned than Oaxaca, San Cristóbal can still hold its own on Day of the Dead celebrations, particularly on some of the Mayan villages surrounding the town. Thanks and good luck!

  5. Beautiful! I would LOVE to see this one day!

  6. Steven says:

    I’m currently living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and I’m very excited about my first Dia de Los Muertes…very exciting.

    Thanks for sharing your cool photos.

  7. Tim says:

    I have never been in Mexico during this festival but the way you write about it makes me want to go some day soon. It kind of makes halloween seem like the little, less desirable, sister as far as celebrations of dead go.

    • FW North says:

      Hey Tim! Halloween is an entire different creature from Day of the Dead. Whereas the first has lost nearly all of its ancient roots in favor of unfettered capitalism, the latter is still a ceremony steeped in tradition, almost exclusively preoccupied with honoring the dead and being aware of our own mortality. Hope you get to experience it one day. Good luck!

  8. Gorgeous photos! Was in Mexico for the first time last month and fell in love with the colors, music, and people. Hope one day I can experience a dia de los muertos there, looks beautiful!

    • FW North says:

      Hey Jessica! Thanks a lot, we also hope you will be able to experience Dia de los Muertos – it’s unforgettable 🙂 Good luck!

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