Dia de los Muertos in San Chamula & San Cristobal de Las Casas

I have been waiting to see Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) since I was a kid. For some reason I find this celebration absolutely fascinating, perhaps it is because the Mexicans seem to have a really great relationship with death or maybe because I love Halloween and three days of it seems too good to be true.

We were told that the place to be on Nov.1 in the San Cristobal area is a small town about 30 min outside called San Juan Chamula. The people here are a very independent group of Mayan descendents called the Tzotzil. They speak a Mayan dialect (yep, called Tzotzil) and follow a very unique religion, which mixes some Christianity with traditional Mayan beliefs.

We arrived with a tour group, led by a Zapatista supporter, to find the graveyard brimming with people. Kids were playing among the graves, grandmothers wailing sorrows and all the men were well on their way to becoming extremely drunk.

The graves are covered in pine needles with marigolds laid out to create a cross on the graves (there are crosses in the Mayan faith so these are not necessarily Christian crosses). The smell of the flowers and pine surrounded us as we watched the festivities taking place. According to our guide the pine is very important to the Tzotzil and it constantly covers their church floor. This gets changed three times a week and I can’t help but wonder if it is a trap for curious foreigners as I saw a few of us just about wipeout in the church.

In the church we were able to see the odd mixture of Mayan belief and Christianity. The last Catholic priest was ousted from the community in 1969 although they do allow a priest to return once a month to baptize the children. The church is filled with all the saints and of course the Virgin Mary, Jesus and Joseph though for Day of the Dead these three were covered with cloths so that bad spirits who return are not able to see them. There was a funeral table set up in the middle of the church and many of the men and women were busy participating in what they called a “ritual”.

No photos are allowed in the church, of church leaders or of any ritual so all we can do is explain what we saw. We did return to the church a few days later to see the usual events which include tonnes of candles in varying colours which represent different things, chickens (an offering which I believe starts off alive…) and soda pop, the more affordable option versus posh (kind of like moonshine). It is pretty wild to see Coca-Cola and Fanta bottles in front of the Virgin Mary.

After our church visit we were able to visit a religious leader’s house for a “donation”. Though it is very expensive to be a leader, as they have to provide everything for all the rituals that occur the whole year. This includes incense, all offerings, candles and fireworks! A woman was unwrapping hundreds of scarves from a saint while a small band played music. Every 5 minutes of so one of the men would yell our “fireworks!” in Tzotzil and then someone outside would send a firework off…in their hand. I was surprised that there were not any injuries from holding fireworks and letting them go. We were offered some posh and some goof tried to refuse it, which is not very polite especially when we were invited in. I figured since it was about 99% alcohol there was a pretty slim chance of getting sick…I did avoid drinking the bugs that were floating in it though.

The following day Nov.2, All Soul’s Day (Day of the Dead is actually more like 4 days) we headed off to the Panteon (grave yard) in San Cristobal de las Casas. It was packed with people visiting the colourful graves of loved ones, mariachis for hire (to sing to the dearly departed), vendors selling tasty treats and indigenous women selling pine needles and marigolds.

The graves are more like condos for the deceased. They are covered structures, with doors, windows and altars housed within. I think everyone from the town was there. We did not stay too long as we hate being those tourists who sit and stare while people are just doing what they normally do but it was a very cool thing to get to witness. gallbladder diet after surgery

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  1. Austin’s avatar

    I’ve always wanted to see the day of the dead celebrations. Great post!