This week, while most of United States and Europe were getting ready for Halloween and the chance to dress up and scare friends and relatives, much of Latin America was focused on the festivals and parties surrounding the Day of the Dead. This is most famously a Mexican festival, and although it is celebrated with most intensity in that country, it is also extremely popular in Peru. In recent years, with the influx of more and more tourists and the influence of American culture, television, and films, Halloween has become more widely celebrated, but the Day of the Dead is still far more important to the people of Peru, and is observed all over the country.
The festival falls on the 1st and 2nd November each year, and the Day of the Dead is a celebration to honor and remember departed friends and relatives. The festival itself dates back to pre-Hispanic times when the local people used to mummify their dead and take them on processions through streets and plazas. With the arrival of the Spanish and the Catholic religion in the 16th century these traditional practices were stopped, but the festivals celebrated today have retained the indigenous traditions of maintaining contact with the dead, only that they are now combined with more Christian elements. And indeed the Day of the Dead festival is a mixture of the Catholic holy day ‘All Souls Day’ and traditional indigenous customs.
Throughout Peru different rituals and customs are observed in celebrating the festival, and depending on the family, street parties, building altars at home, and visiting graveyards to lay offerings are all commonplace. But at its heart, throughout the country and in every family, the festival is a celebration of the dead and is very much a joyous occasion. It is a way to spend time at the graves of departed relatives, think about them, and remember and honor the life they had. It is by no means a somber day and rather than dwell on the loss, people in Peru prefer to celebrate the life the person led, what they liked, and what they achieved.
Although celebrations differ depending on where you are in the country, the 1st November is generally a day to spend at home with the family and enjoy a special meal, usually lechon (roasted suckling pig). This meal is a festive occasion with a full spread of food and drink being accompanied by music, jokes, and a general good time! The 2nd November is traditionally the day to visit the cemetery to spend time at the graves of loved ones and bring offerings. All manner of offerings are brought, from flowers and food, to ornaments and treasured objects, and the graveyards during these days, filled with all kinds of colors and objects, are a truly beautiful sight. It is also not uncommon to hear music played in the cemeteries, turning a sometimes dark, sad place, into a real joyous atmosphere.
The Day of the Dead is one of the most important festivals to the people throughout Peru, and is a day to remember loved ones. There is something quite special about the whole family getting together to share thoughts about relatives, and rather than being a poignant, somber occasion, it is a real celebration of life. Honoring the dead is a custom that dates back hundreds of years, to a time before the Spanish conquest, and keeping the dead in their thoughts is as important to Peruvians today as it ever was.