Festival Fit: Lively up yourself for Mexico’s Day of the Dead

On the festival trail in Mexico, you need to get into training for a day of debauchery with the dead

Enough with the fireworks already! Jack Russells have been cowering in corners all over the country for the past few nights, but spare a thought for the poor Chihuahuas. Fireworks in Mexico at this time of year are like Paul McCartney – it feels like they'll never stop.

I’ve been shacked up in southern Mexico for a week, winding up for Dia de Los Muertos, a festival that should technically last only one day, but if you’re going to raise the dead for a session, it makes sense to build up a head of steam before they arrive. You don’t want to invite the spirits of your nearest and dearest round for a party only to have them arrive before the thing is in full swing; that’d be embarrassing and the last person you’d want to piss off is Santa Muerte.

You won't find a shrine to St Death in the basilica at Knock or in a moving crib in Ballinspittle. The Catholic church doesn't recognise this saint, although it'll be sure to recognise her when she comes knocking – the skeletal figure and scythe are a dead giveaway. Similarly to ourselves, the Mexicans take their christianity with a healthy dash of paganism. Just as our heathen ancestors lit bonfires at this time of year for Samhain, bringing the pucaí and síofraí out to play, the Aztecs had a celebration with similar necromantic leanings, but at a different time of year. The early Christians were as savvy as Coca-Cola when it came to repackaging their product with something recognisable on the label to broaden its appeal; as a result, All Souls Day (November 2nd) in Mexico has morphed into the wonderfully out-of-hand Day of The Dead.

The holiday is celebrated all over the country, but down south in Oaxaca they tear the arse out if it, putting in a full week's festivalling before the spirits are due to arrive. It was an obvious destination for me. Oaxaca city is nestled just above the town of Xoxocotlan, a geographical fact that has led me to realise you should never challenge a Mixtec to a game of Scrabble – they've got mad sxkills.


The iconography may seem macabre, but the buzz is all about celebration and good times. The idea is to entice the spirits home for one night and, as with any other guests, if the spirits do arrive, there will be plenty of music, dancing, food, drink and fun. The drink is not a problem is this neck of the woods; Oaxaca is the home of Mezcal, a drink made from the heart of the maguey plant. It's the tipple with the larval moth in the end of the bottle.

In the spirit of research and in the research of spirit I’ve been sampling the many varieties of Mezcal on offer. When you need a selection of condiments on hand to kill the taste of a drink it doesn’t say much for the liquor, especially when one of those side-orders contains crushed grasshoppers. I told one of the lads in Casa del Mezcal about our kamikaze tequila shot, as occasionally practiced in Irish nightclubs. “You snort a pinch of salt, knock back the shot and squeeze a bit of lemon into your eye,” I told the bemused buachaillí.

“Eso es loco,” replied one boyo as he sprinkled ground grasshopper onto a slice of orange in preparation for another sup of nail varnish remover.

I'll be spending the next two nights in graveyards with locals who'll be dressing up, getting down and dancing with the dead. Having a festival in a graveyard may seem a bit weird, but our own Pattern Festivals (à la Ardmore, Co Waterford and Brideswell, Co Roscommon) aren't a million miles away. If I can convince the lads to snort a line of spiced grasshopper before the next shot, it'll be exactly like home.

Buen viaje, no mueren.