Hype up your holidays with death, demons and root vegetables

A photograph of the author, Austin Bailey.

By Austin Bailey

October 18, 2018

Hype up your holidays with death, demons and root vegetables

There’s plenty going on in the United States in October, November and December, with our trick-or-treating at Halloween, Norman Rockwell-worthy turkeys at Thanksgiving, the Christmas tree towering over Rockefeller Plaza and menorahs blazing in windows.

But colorful displays of holiday cheer don’t stop at the border. Celebrations in Central and South America this time of year include festivals, food and traditions that you might want to fold into your own holiday routines.

Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Mexico

Each year at the end of October and beginning of November, people in Mexico decorate and celebrate to honor the dead during Dia de Los Muertos. People don traditional clothing and paint their faces with the distinct skull designs of La Catrina, a satirical character who flaunts her indifference to death. They decorate grave sites with flowers and tell stories about dead friends and family.

Grave sites are decorated with the sweet breads for All Saints Day in Bolivia. Credit: notesfromacamelidcountry

Todos Santos (All Saints’ Day), Bolivia

Before the Spanish brought Catholicism to South America, the Andean people celebrated a brief return of the dead from the underworld each spring. Departed friends and relatives brought good tidings and good luck for plentiful rainfall and an abundant harvest. Once Catholicism took hold, this Day of the Dead celebration mingled with All Saints’ Day. Today this dual holiday is celebrated with a decidedly Bolivian flair.

Bolivian families anticipate that their returning dead relatives will be hungry, so they set a place at the table for the deceased and prepare favorite foods and drink for a big meal on November 1. On November 2, Bolivians escort the spirits of their dead back to cemeteries with a lively processional that includes artists, musicians and food stalls. Grave sites are spruced up with fresh flowers and a good cleaning. Families leave behind masitas, which are special sweet breads made in special shapes. Some are shaped like ladders to represent the Catholic tradition of ascending to heaven.

Carved devils await being burned as part of the La Quema del Diablo celebrations in Guatemala.

La Quema del Diablo (the Burning of the Devil), Guatemala

Before the wholesome Christmas celebrations begin, Guatemalan Christians ward off evil spirits and negative energy with a symbolic cleansing. Every December 7, families in Guatemala sweep up trash and grime from their homes and heap it in the street for a big bonfire. At the top of the fires, they burn effigies of Satan.


Noche de Rabanos (Night of Radishes), Mexico

This century-old holiday is celebrated every December 23 in Oaxaca, Mexico. The tradition began when merchants tried to attract shoppers on their way to and from Christmas church services with intricate vegetable displays. The merchants carved radishes into people, animals and other decorative shapes. The most imaginative and skillfully carved radishes would be snatched up to be used as centerpieces on holiday tables.

In 1897 Oaxaca’s mayor officially declared December 23 to be the Night of the Radishes. Each year, professional artists and amateur whittlers transform humble radishes into nativity scenes, alligators, churches and other creations.