Día de Muertos (and Halloween)

Another spooky season is upon us, which, of course, has me reflecting on last year’s festivities, and since last year was our first full year in Mexico, I remember having a lot of questions regarding two very colorful (yet slightly morbid) holidays that happen to take place in the same fun-filled week. Thankfully, we had a brilliant education last year, and now I’m ready to share all that I learned! So, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering how Halloween and Día de Muertos are celebrated south of the border, well, you’re in for a treat (see what I did there?) because this post is about to get frightening(ly in-depth). Mwahaha!

Halloween in Mexico

So, first off, whenever we would ask locals about Halloween in Mexico, they’d typically tell us that it’s not really celebrated…but I beg to disagree. Grocery stores start selling costumes and decorations in September, many restaurants have jack-o-lanterns and spiders welcoming their guests, and last year on Halloween (and several days on either side of it) I witnessed creepy clowns, Squid Game contestants, and many other characters walking down the street. There are also Halloween-themed events advertised for both kids and adults all month long, so whether it’s gimmicky or not, I sense a bit of a celebration. Of course, we’ve also been told that the closer you get to the US border, the more Halloween-y it will feel. Places like Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez, and Tijuana have the most going on, but even down here in GDL, the global holiday influence is still felt. However, I also can’t deny that there is a lot more buzz around the infamous Day of the Dead, and rightly so.

Día de Muertos

With such a sinister sounding name, it’s easy to connect the ghosts and ghouls of Halloween to this particular holiday, but in reality, Día de Muertos seems to have more in common with the All Saints’ Day we experienced in Poland or with China’s Tomb Sweeping Day. The holiday’s purpose is to honor family members who have since passed, much like other memorial holidays around the world. In fact, Día de Muertos is partially connected to Catholicism, thus the same date as All Saints’ Day; however, there’s also an indigenous twist in Mexico’s version of remembrance. Origins and comparisons aside, the first thing that really confused me was actually the name itself. I was constantly hearing and seeing both Día de Muertos and Día de los Muertos…so which should I be using?! Apparently, no importa, both are used, both are correct. It’s a pick your own poison sort of thing.

The next thing we learned was that Día de Muertos is actually días, plural. The holiday consists of two very important days/celebrations, one on November first and one on November second (of course, like other holidays, the celebrating really stretches throughout the whole week), but the significance of these two days is really interesting. November first is the day when the spirits and souls of innocents (or children) are remembered and honored. This day was a bit quieter and included a lot more white flowers (as opposed to the usual gold) and decorations especially for kids. For example, one of the tombs we saw had an array of toy cars and candy set out. The next day, November second, is the big day, the day when all the other ancestors are to be remembered and celebrated, with even more flowers and special treats, of course.

So how does one celebrate Día de Muertos?

Well, like every other major holiday, there are lots of regional differences and personal preferences at play, but a few of the more traditional elements include cleaning and decorating the tombs/graves of your ancestors, making an ofrenda (or alter) in your home for more recently lost family members, and having a party to celebrate the circle of life in general. Last year, Tucker and I visited two cemeteries to see some of the tomb cleaning and decorating for ourselves, and we were absolutely amazed! Even in a large, modern city (which usually has fewer traditionalists) and even with some of the oldest cemeteries (whose descendants might also be gone at this point), not to mention a pandemic to contend with, people really went all out! Famous Jaliscienses (people from Jalisco) had the most going on with elaborate flower carpets, rows and rows of candles, and a huge amount of papel picado (the colorful paper flags), but due to the ongoing Covid battle, former nurses and doctors were also highly celebrated, as were all the other lucky souls who still have devoted family members living in the city.

The tombs are often set up much the same as the alters at home. Flowers are a must, specifically cempasúchiles (marigolds) because their bright color and strong scent help guide spirits back for the night. This is the indigenous twist I was mentioning earlier: the ancient belief was that only on this night and only if your family put up an alter for you could your spirit come back to Earth and enjoy the party. This is also why the alters are often adorned with the favorite foods, drinks, and other preferences of those who have passed – something for them to enjoy on their journey. Sometimes it’s real food and drink left out (which is usually eaten by the living family members at some point), but sometimes the alters are decorated with figurines of all the ancestors’ favorites, which you can find at pop-up markets all month long: tiny plates of tacos el pastor, little bottles of tequila, itty-bitty cigarettes, etc. If someone loved it, you can find it in miniature. Sugar skulls with the names of those who have passed are also common for the ofrendas, but today, kids often want their own names put on them, further emphasizing that this celebration is for both those who are gone and those who remain.

While the decorations and alters might be the most eye-catching parts of Día de Muertos celebrations, the most memorable part, for me, was the party atmosphere. There is nothing creepy or sad about this particular holiday. It is all joy; music is everywhere, families hugging, kids playing, even in the cemeteries themselves. And once the alters and ancestors are taken care of, more partying takes place in the form of parades, mariachi performances, and snacks for all (including the infamous pan de muerto, a sweet bread in the shape of crossbones). Sometimes in pictures, Día de Muertos can look like an homage to death with all the skeletons and tombs, but in reality, it is a celebration of life and family, and it’s something I’m very much looking forward to celebrating in person once again.

Christmastime in Poland

Tucker and I have now been in Poland for over three months, and one of my favorite things about being here long-term is getting to see how people in Poland celebrate the holidays! We’ve been through several Polish-exclusive holidays (like All Saint’s Day, Andrzejki, etc.) and shared our American customs for holidays like Thanksgiving, but Christmas is the first holiday that both countries have in common, and it’s a big one. We had read and heard about many Polish Christmas traditions, but experiencing them was so much better! I didn’t take near enough photos, but here is my written description of our Polish Christmas:

Mikolajki – The Christmas season in Poland, much like in the US, lasts more than just a few days. We started seeing Christmas decorations in mid-November – there’s no Thanksgiving here, so no one fights over when to start decorating! There are also a few extra days of Christmas-related celebrations, such as Mikolaijki. Mikolaijki (or Saint Nickolas’ Day) is associated with Santa and seems to be mainly celebrated with children in school. Typically games are played, songs are sung, and children receive gifts of candy or sweets. As an adult, it doesn’t mean quite as much as we all still had to go to work, but it’s certainly a fun way to begin the holiday season.

Wigilia – Next is Wigilia (or Christmas Eve), which is the main day of Polish celebrations. Most people work half-days on Christmas Eve, and celebrate with their families in the evening and for the next few days. There are many articles, videos, etc. describing some of the customs Polish families observe on this evening, but it really differs from family to family. Some traditions include starting the evening meal after the first star can be seen, putting hay under the tablecloth, and always leaving an empty chair at the table for an unexpected guest. These particular traditions were ones we read about, but the families we celebrated with this year, didn’t observe them. Perhaps they are a little antiquated, like caroling in the US – we talk about it, but I’ve never seen it.

For our Wigilia, we were invited by our friend, Mateusz (who is also our Polish teacher) to his family’s house in Łask, Poland. Łask is a small town about 30 minutes outside Łódź, which allowed us to experience not only a Polish Christmas, but also Polish life outside the city. When we arrived, we were joined by Mateusz’s mom, brother, and brother’s girlfriend. The six of us then sat down for a truly amazing homemade Polish meal. There are typically 12 dishes served for Wigilia, and they usually only appear on Polish tables once a year. We had mushroom soup, cabbage pierogies with mushroom sauce, carp, cod, Greek fish, herring in a milk broth with potatoes, barscht, and I (alone) was also given a croquette (since I’m not a big ryby-eater). Traditionally, there is no meat served on Christmas Eve – fish obviously doesn’t count. To drink we had homemade wine, dried fruit compote, eggnog (made by Tucker), and ajerkoniak (Poland’s much stronger version of eggnog). For dessert there was sernik (cheesecake), szarlotka (apple pie), makowiec (poppy seed cake roll), and a very delicious cream/custard cake.

The food was delicious and unlike anything we had had before, but most exciting was the company. We got to use our very minimal Polish (plus our brilliant translator, Mateusz) to talk about food, family, and the differences between life in the US and Poland. We were also able to experience the feeling of family while we were there: everyone helping to clear the table, laughing and poking fun at each other, etc . It was very fun for us to see how Polish family members interact. Perhaps not so shockingly, it’s very much like in the US (and I suspect in most families worldwide). After dinner and conversation, we walked around the city of Łask listening to stories about the town’s history and asking a variety of Poland-related questions. Eventually, it was time to go home and open up our presents! In Poland, presents are opened on Christmas Eve, so in an effort to be both Polish and American, Tucker and I opened our gifts just after midnight (technically on the 25th).

Boże Narodzenie – Christmas day in Poland is similar to the day after Christmas in the US: more food and more family! Tucker and I decided to be very American and have steak for breakfast, but later in the day we headed over to my friend (and colleague) Weronika’s apartment for Christmas dinner. Weronika and her family welcomed us on the stairs and we, again, immediately felt like part of the family. We had amazing conversations ranging from German vocabulary to movies of the seventies, played games in English and Polish, and, of course, ate more than seems possible. For dinner we had mushroom soup, beetroot and herring, a variety of dips and sauces (many of which I forgot to ask the names of), bread with butter, and bigos (a sort of cabbage and meat stew). Everything, very typical in Poland, was again homemade: even the cakes and pierniczki (gingerbread cookies) we had for dessert. It’s really getting difficult to defend our lazy American habits! Sadly, after the wine and cookies, we had to say “dobranoc” and head back home to our empty apartment. Christmas is a difficult time to be away from family, but our incredibly generous Polish friends made sure that not only did we learn about how they celebrate the holidays, but that we felt like we were a part of them. Tucker and I are so thankful for the people we have met here in Poland and can’t wait for them to visit us in the US (or wherever we are) in the future!

Ultimately, Tucker and I had an amazing Polish Christmas, and we’re looking forward to the Nowy Rok and all the other upcoming holidays! I hope you enjoyed reading about our experience this Christmas, and I wish I could share every detail. But for now: Wesołych Świąt i Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!

Merry Christmas!