Day of the Dead: My Birthday In Mexico

By Bonnie & Bill Neely

Bill took me on a surprise trip for my birthday. When we happily arrived in Mexico City, I was thrilled, but I asked, “How and why did you decide to bring us here?”  He replied, “Because the whole country celebrates YOUR birthday!” And WHAT a celebration!

We highly recommend staying in the center of the several days of celebration, at the Hilton Hotel in Reforma, where the rooms are lovely with every amenity you could need. The breakfast, included, is a fabulous buffet of every delicious food you could desire. Service throughout the excellent hotel is caring and attentive, and we all enjoyed the Lobby Bar and Restaurant. The concierge set us up with the BEST driver/tour guide we could ever want, Hector ( ), 011-52-(1)-55-7051-8278. He helped our family throughout our long weekend, even taking care of one who got sick and was the last one of our group to leave Mexico.

Arriving on October 31 is fun because it seems that from morning until all through the night (Latin people stay out VERY late!) everyone is in costume and most have faces painted or wear masks. In some cities this “hiding” would seem threatening, but the immense crowds, which thronged the streets, were very orderly and peaceful, happily celebrating family and honoring ages old traditions of their culture. Some shops were giving candies and small treats to children. Many entire families, from a baby in arms to grandparents, wore very imaginative costumes, often created by the wearers.

In the lovely city park across from our hotel were many tents with souvenirs for the celebratory weekend.  Mexican people seem to be natural born artists who love to create, so the hand-made items were many and varied, all brightly designed as if nature itself were bursting forth in a riot of color.  Carvings, sculpture, clay and wood items, fabrics and needlework, masks, little figures, ceramic cups and bowls, and paintings were among the popular items, different in each artist’s tent. And the face-painting tent was very popular, with lines of adults and children waiting to see what new face would be created for them.

We walked about one kilometer to the Zocalo , a huge plaza of the city and also the center of all the festivities. We enjoyed the beautiful park with fountains, lovely tall trees, colorful flowers, and exquisite architecture, especially in the Palacio de Bellas Artes

Literally thousands of people calmly merged as we crossed the streets when lights signaled “Walk.”  We waited our turn for one of the numerous upstairs Bars where we could get a late afternoon snack and a marguarita and watch all the Zocalo activities.  We were especially fascinated with the Native Indian Mexican people performing their heritage dances in authentic costumes of feathers and furs, moccasins, beads, tomahawks, drums, and elaborate headdresses.  Of course, the hundreds of imaginative other costumes thronging around the Zocalo were fun to see and photograph.

The Hilton Hotel had many of the traditional foods and examples of the Family Altars, in true celebration of the season.  Each home throughout Mexico honors its dead loved ones on this date every year by creating an altar containing the four elements of air, fire, earth and water, a picture of the deceased being honored and some of that person’s favorite foods and toys, clothing, and earthly treasures. The altar is crowned with a picture of Christ or a Saint.  Orange and yellow marigold and chrysanthemum flowers create a walkway, which guides the Spirit of the deceased to its earthly home and to his or her altar, also decorated with these flowers. 

A special family meal of the deceased’s favorite foods is served with a place set at the table for the spirit. The tradition springs from centuries of tribal and early Christian beliefs that include knowing that life is eternal, death is just one stage of passing through, and Not To Be Feared. Children learn this belief and custom from the beginning, so the Day of the Dead is a celebration, and the scary looking costumes just deter Evil Spirits from blocking their joy.  The family visits the cemetery with flowers or other decorations for remembering and honoring the loved one during this celebratory period.

On November 1, the Day of the Dead, a huge parade marches through several miles of Mexico City, and our hotel was right on the parade route.  We had walked to the Zocalo in the morning before the scheduled 2 p.m. parade and enjoyed all the activities and shopping on the other side of the street, taking hundreds of photos. But when we were blocks away from the Hilton a huge deluge of rain began, and all our rain gear was at the hotel. We hurried along, getting soaked, but the very enterprising locals magically offered thousands of disposable raincoats for sale!  We were grateful because when we reached our hotel the Parade Route was blocked and guarded with policemen who would not let anyone cross over to the hotel side!  No friendly persuasion worked!

Finally, we were able to understand the Spanish, which informed us we could cross over about 5 blocks back, so we hurried there and arrived at the Hilton to get dry and learn the parade was delayed by two hours. Thousands of people lined both sides of the street about 12 layers deep, undaunted by the weather, so the food vendors walked about selling soft drinks, water, sweets, and pizza.  And other enterprising craftsmen appeared with handmade stools to purchase for those at the back of the crowds to see the parade.  At long last, the elaborate event of the year began.  Huge floats, small vehicles, bands, dancers, marching people on tall stilts, all with fanciful costumes and most featuring skulls and skeletons. The parade was a two-hour spectacle to delight everyone!

No, we didn’t go to Mexico City to die on the Day of the Dead!  But learning a new way to appreciate the gracious people there and to celebrate Life with exuberance and color gave us infectious joy. What a great time to visit Mexico!