Día de Reyes or Three Kings’ Day

Later today, I’m planning to celebrate el Día de los Reyes with my fiancee’s family. Yesterday, I made the mistake of assuming this was going to be another tequila party, since most of the Mexican festivities tend to go that route. My fiancee looked at me like I was crazy and said with his Costeño accent, “Eet’s not a party! Eet’s bread with hot chocolate! And if ju get the beibi doll, ju haf tu trow the party nex taim.”  Ah, ok. Now I understand. And I’m supposedly the crazy one here?

Since I have a tendency to think a lot of the traditional customs are a little cuckoo before I understand them, I decided to do a little further investigation into this holiday so I could share the knowledge with you all.

Image: bashapedia.pbworks.com
Image: bashapedia.pbworks.com

So, the basic premise of this major holiday is it’s held on January 6th and commemorates the arrival of the three kings with gifts for baby Jesus. Traditionally, Mexican children do not receive their gifts on Christmas Day, but instead on January 6th. It is understandable, then, why this is an important holiday for old and young alike!

Just as many American children leave milk and cookies for Santa, Mexican families also leave an offering for the three kings on the evening before they arrive. They traditionally leave out their shoes (or small boxes) with a little bit of hay (for the reindeer–er, camels). In the morning, the hay is gone and is replaced with gifts for the children from the kings.

Rosca de ReyesImage: abullseyereview.com
Rosca de Reyes
Image: abullseyereview.com

Another custom, and one I in which I will participate for the first time today, is eating sweet bread in the shape of a wreath with a baby Jesus figurine hidden inside. The bread is called “Rosca de Reyes,” with “rosca” translating to wreath. The tradition with the little baby Jesus doll, “el muñequito,” comes from the Biblical story of how baby Jesus had to be hidden from King Herod, who wanted to kill him. Whoever gets the piece of bread with the figurine inside is supposed to host a party with tamales on February 2, which is el Día de las Candelarias.

Ay ay ay, I’ll have to find out more about that one and get back to you!! That is, if this doesn’t become another all-night fiesta!

The True Meaning of Día de los Muertos

Black and white version of a traditional “Day of the Dead” skull

When I first heard of the “Day of the Dead” as an important Mexican holiday, I was skeptical of its traditions and fairly certain I would never participate in what many told me was a “mockery” of death. Here in the U.S., death is a somber, reverent occasion. Once the funeral passes and the mourning casseroles are all eaten or discarded, I think our instinct as Americans is to hurry on with our lives and put the grief behind us as well as we can. It’s safe to say most of us don’t have parties to bring up the subject of our dearly departed each year. Yet, after learning all about this Mexican tradition and celebrating it myself for the past few years, I think perhaps we should celebrate our deceased loves ones in some way more often.

In case you’re still not convinced, I’ll try to share the short version of how to celebrate El Día de los Muertos, as well as the meaning of some of the traditional items associated with this holiday.

Día de los Muertos 2011

A true Day of the Dead celebration begins at midnight on October 31. The souls of departed children (Los Inocentes) are said to return on November 1st, which coincides with the Christian holiday of All Saints’ Day. On November 2nd (All Souls’ Day), the souls of deceased adults have their day, the actual Día de los Muertos. Traditionally, the loved ones’ souls are honored in cemeteries, in family homes and, in some regions, they are also celebrated in parades and/or town gatherings.

In many small towns in Mexico, preparations for the party begin weeks in advance. Festive sugar skulls are created and sold almost everywhere, pan de muerto (a sweet bread that may have a small skull baked into it) is prepared, and the final touches are placed on altars to honor the departed souls in a tradition that is reverent yet somehow overwhelmingly positive in its spirit. Families create altars as an offering to their loved ones, and these altars are meant to remember the dead in a happy, lighthearted manner.

My Day of the Dead altar–2012

This is where I disagree with descriptions of this holiday as mocking death. It is not mocking in a negative sense, but rather seeing death as a part of life and thus not letting it drag you down with it. In many Mexican villages, families visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried and spend the day cleaning the gravesite and bringing offerings of foods and other items the deceased enjoyed while they were living.

The following are the meanings of some of the most traditional items you will find on a Día de los Muertos altar:

Photos:  A photo of the loved one is always a central part of any Day of the Dead altar. The photo can be framed and its purpose is to show who is being honored by the altar.

Foods:  Many different foods can be used on the altar, ranging from traditional choices such as tamales or sugar skulls to whatever the deceased family member loved to eat most in life–be it chocolate chip cookies or pumpkin pie! The purpose of the food is to nourish the traveling soul after his or her long journey from the Other Side.

Water:  The altar is not complete without a glass of water to quench the spirit’s thirst upon his or her return. I substitute a Diet Coke, which I know my loved ones would appreciate even more than water if they were thirsty.

Candles:  Candles are placed on the altar to guide the spirit back to his or her loved ones. I always use vanilla scented candles on my mother’s altar because she absolutely adored them in life.

Flowers:  A special flower–cempazúchitl (marigold)– is used on the altar for the the Day of the Dead celebration. It is said the scent of the flower draws the soul of the loved one back to the altar for their yearly visit.

Other Items:  As you might have guessed by now, each altar is different based on the individual being honored. Some other common items found on some altars include salt (said to purify the offering), colored paper (cut into decorations to make the altar even more attractive) and anything else the deceased was passionate about in life.

A happy picture of my late mother on her Day of the Dead altar

I have seen many different kinds of tributes on Day of the Dead altars, from Old Bay seasoning to Jack Daniel’s to crossword puzzles! This is what I love most about this holiday. It is truly about reliving the positive memories your loved one gave you–not mourning or crying, but rather celebrating death as an inevitable part of life.

Visit Los Cabos: The Gringo Experience

Any time I am able to travel south of the border, I consider it a treat. Everyone who knows me is aware of my love for the Mexican culture–many have told me my corazón is brown on the inside (meaning I am only a Gringa on the outside). Whatever you want to call me, it is safe to say I am at ease with my Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south. If I go by land, by the time I get just a few mile south of Tijuana I feel as though I am worlds away from the worries of everyday life in the States.

The beautiful desert view at the airport in San Jose del Cabo

On my trip earlier this week, I went by plane from the airport in Tijuana. Destination: Cabo San Lucas. Now before you go calling me a typical tourist, let me state that last year we vacationed in Cabo after driving the entire 1,000 miles from San Diego to the tip of the Baja peninsula. Then of course we drove back. While I would have loved to do it all over again, it was not a road trip my dear significant other wanted to repeat. So this time we had a much more typical tourist experience. I much prefer the road less traveled, but there are advantages to both types of vacation. Here’s how we chose to spend our time (and all our money).

Playing Tourist

I’m ashamed to say we did some cliché American-tourist-in-Mexico things. For starters, we spent way too much money on things we could probably do here in San Diego for less. Everything in Cabo San Lucas is expensive, and although the prices of many services in Mexico are negotiable, in the restaurants and bars you just have to cough up the dinero. We splurged on several pricy dinners for two, the most memorable being Sunset da Mona Lisa (a must-do no matter who you are if you want an unforgettable view and fine dining experience) and Mango Deck (I am still shocked at the good quality of the food at this Spring Break hotspot). We also enjoyed an overpriced room service meal at the Bahia Hotel that piqued our interest in the hotel’s restaurant…until we discovered it was all the same menu. You should be prepared to pay outrageous prices if you go anywhere in a cab. We spent a sizable chunk of our budget just getting to and from the airport. Expect to blow a lot more money than you planned, just know it’s possible to save in other areas.

The view from the restaurant at Sunset da Mona Lisa

Saving Some Dough

Admittedly, we dove into some of the Cabo tourist traps like giddy first-timers, but we also tried to be sensible on this week-long vacation in paradise. One of our first stops when we got into town was at the local Costco, where we loaded up on sandwich fixings and beer. The going price for a cheap beer in a restaurant or bar was about $3 each, so we saved about a hundred dollars by getting our booze at the store and drinking from our stash when we lay by the pool, walked around town and/or sat on the beach. We also ate a lot of turkey sandwiches for breakfast or in between bigger meals when we would have otherwise purchased appetizers or snacks at an inflated price. Another good tip is to bring your comfortable shoes and go on foot as much as possible. We walked into town at least once a day and took the public bus a few times for as little as 50 cents each. We went all the way to San Jose one afternoon for $1.50 each way, which would have cost at least $40 USD each way in a cab.

Beautiful Catholic church in San Jose

Being Smart

It’s fairly common knowledge that prices are inflated in the high-end tourist town of Cabo San Lucas. We knew this going in and allowed ourselves to enjoy some of those typical high-priced pleasures on our trip. But besides doing our own shopping and hoofing it for much of our vacation, we also tried to be smart when it came to paying for negotiable items. We knew from previous trips and from our friends who live in the area that the price of necessary taxi rides should be negotiated before getting into the cab and that if we offered to catch the next one they would usually bring the price down. When we took a water taxi to Lover’s Beach for the afternoon, we took only as much money as we had paid for the fare the year before, and though we had to walk away from the first two offers, we found a taker for our price and were happy to pay a reasonable rate for the five-minute boat ride. We followed the same strategy when shopping for souvenirs in the little mercado at the north end of town. We took only as much cash as we wanted to spend and found a nice young lady whose first offers were reasonable. We didn’t even negotiate with her because she was more than fair, and we ended up buying all but one souvenir from what she had to offer.

One bus driver had a rabbit’s foot and a crucifix on his dash–foolproof!

Like most of my trips to Baja California, this vacation was full of beautiful scenery and relaxing among friendly faces. I learned a lot about what’s truly worth seeing and what I would skip in the future when in Los Cabos. Of course I also heard the persistent fears about travel to Mexico and had a few laughs to myself about how perhaps even in a place as safe as Cabo it’s true–if you’re not careful, the tourist traps will rob you of your money and the tequila will take your memory with it! Still, the only thing I’ve ever had stolen on any of my Mexico trips was my little gringo heart, which can’t wait to return to Baja soon.