In many countries, November 1st means recovering from a sugar-induced stomachache, packing away your costume, and getting rid of your Jack-o-lantern — the holiday known as Halloween, when restless spirits wander the Earth, has come to an end. However, in Central American countries such as Belize, el Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations have just begun. Festivals are hosted throughout the country for one week, beginning on the night of October 31st. With colorful altars, special food, and family gatherings, Belizeans embrace death as a part of life. So remove the pennies from your eyes and spirit away to the Belizean celebration of lost souls’ return: el Día de los Muertos.
Widely known as a Mexican holiday, el Día de los Muertos traveled to Belize via the Spanish-Yucatan Mestizo population who sought out Belize as refugees in 1848. Over 150 years later, the rich cultural traditions of the holiday are still alive and well in Belize.
Belizean traditions hold that to celebrate life, you must also celebrate passing. “Life is seen as a coin,” Shari Williams, Communications Officer at the Belize House of Culture, says. “On one side there is death and on one side there is life, and in order to celebrate life they believe that you have to celebrate death.”
Día de los Muertos celebrations honor the dead with lively, colorful memorials. Historically, Day of the Dead festivities last about a week because that’s how long the souls of the departed are believed to roam through town. November 1st (All Saints Day) celebrates the souls of lost children, while November 2nd (All Souls Day) honors adult souls. For generations, Belizeans have upheld their traditions so that when the souls of their beloved family members and friends return, they arrive to prayer and reverence.
A Family Gathering
Flickering candlelight casts shifting shadows across the wall, lighting up a table piled with food, rum, incense, and skulls. Family and friends sprawl on the floor or sit in chairs, sharing quiet prayers and stories. Music plays softly from a stereo by the table, adding an unearthly feeling to an already surreal experience. To a newcomer, traditional Belizean Day of the Dead altars drip with spookiness. But to locals, these tables signify celebration and remembrance. Each item bears a specific meaning: the smiling skulls signify the joyful spirit of the returning soul, the food, rum, music and candles all commemorate the departed’s favorite earthly pleasures, and the incense leads the dead to the altar. Family and friends sit by the altar, basking in the glow and offering private eulogies.
The traditional Belizean Day of the Dead celebration centers on these altars. When not seated around the table, families busy themselves preparing flowers and food to take to the cemetery. It’s a joyful time within the culture of Belize; every year, Belizeans get to spend time with their loved ones who have passed on.
Trick, Treat, or Party!
Day of the Dead rituals in Belize remain true to the very personal nature of the holiday, and so there are no organized public celebrations for el Día de los Muertos. But in adopting Western Halloween traditions, the country’s party-loving lifestyle has a chance to shine through. Placencia hosts arguably the best Halloween celebration in Belize. During the day, the city teems with costumed children participating in the parade and costume contest. Trick-or-treating draws out adults as well as the children. In the evening, everyone works off their sugar rush at the Barefoot Beach Bar. Barefoot boasts the biggest Halloween party in town and pumps out the best of Belize’s reggae and Punta music throughout the night. Conga lines ensue, drinks flow, and dancers boogie the night away – all in outrageous, colorful costume. The whole town comes out for the celebration. Kids can also trick-or-treat in San Pedro on Ambergis Caye. The Holiday Hotel Halloween party rivals the Barefoot Beach Bar fest, but you can enjoy a lively night of costumes, dancing, and rum either way.
In the melting pot of Belize, traditions from a number of different cultures have been embraced to become a vibrant component of the collective culture. The fact that imported holidays are celebrated with such fun festivities stands as a testament to the laid-back and hospitable locals. Whether you celebrate Halloween or the Day of the Dead, you’re sure to have the time of your life when you head to Belize around the first week of November!