The Day of the Dead is a three-day Mexican festival that starts on 31 October and lasts for three days. On the surface it might appear that El Día de Muertos is nothing more than a stretched out Halloween, but the two festivals are fundamentally different: while Halloween celebrates everything that is scary about death, the Day of the Dead is about getting together with family and friends to remember loved ones who have passed on, and to send up a prayer for them. As a result, the Day of the Dead is much more of a festival and a celebration than the rather darker and more gothic Halloween.
We were lucky enough to arrive in Mexico just in time for the festivities. As we stepped groggily off the bus in Playa del Carmen, we were greeted by shops and restaurants sporting smiling skulls and skeletons dangling from the awnings, though we were a bit too concerned with our own personal take on the day of the dead, after 20 hours of non-stop transit. It was only as we warmed to our surroundings that we started to see references to the impending celebrations absolutely everywhere, and the difference with Halloween is obvious: the Day of the Dead is all about welcoming in the spirits of loved ones whom you haven't seen since last year's celebration, while Halloween is more obsessed with malevolent spirits who are out to get you. The streets are lined with colourful altars strewn with flowers, food, paper decorations, glittering skulls and even beer bottles, and even the ubiquitous skulls and skeletons have a slightly cartoonish air to them, like Jack Frost in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. There's an impressive sand sculpture down on the beach of an entire skeletal family, but this isn't about scaring people, it's about having fun.
The first evening, All Hallows Eve, is all about the children inviting the spirits of dead children to visit, and in Playa del Carmen this takes the form of families promenading down Avenue 5 and showing off their children's wonderful Halloween costumes. There are skeletons, witches, corpse brides and all manner of ghosts and ghouls walking along the street, though our particular favourite was a tiny toddler dressed up in a pumpkin costume that was so big his hands and feet only just made it out through the orange skin, as if the pumpkin had fallen out of a tree onto his head and swallowed him almost whole. The children all carry little pumpkin-shaped bags that they hold out, looking for sweets from passers-by, so Peta grabbed a handful of one-peso sweets from a shop and handed them out in exchange for photographs; it was a trade that went down well.
Day two, All Saints Day, is when the adult spirits come to visit, and day three, All Souls Day, is when families decorate the graves of their loved ones. Each evening the children continue to bounce along the main drag in their costumes, politely pestering the tourists at their restaurant tables, though by the third evening it does rather reach the point where the novelty has worn off. And then it's all over for another year, and the spirits retreat back to where they came from, while life in the realm of the living gets slowly back to normal.