One of Mexico’s most important religious holidays is celebrated on All Saint’s Day (November 1) and All Soul’s Day (November 2): Dia de los Muertos (sometimes called Dia de los Fieles Difuntos) – Day of the Dead.
Traditionally, November 1st honors deceased children and November 2nd honors deceased adults. Day of the Dead is celebrated passionately throughout Mexico, and especially so in smaller provincial towns and cities. November 2nd is an official Public Holiday in Mexico.
Mexico’s Day of Dead: A celebration of life
Far from being a morbid event, Day of Dead emphasizes remembrance of past lives and expresses celebration of the continuity of life. This acknowledgement of life’s continuity has roots which go back to some of Mexico’s oldest civilizations including the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, and Purépecha. The Aztecs also celebrated Day of the Dead, although earlier —August— on the current calendar.
Local festivities and traditions vary from place to place, although the ofrendas are the focal point of the celebrations during the festive period. Mexico City hosts a large and elaborate procession downtown, and provincial towns and cities hold religious processions to mark the occasion. It’s currently fashionable for participants to have their face painted to emulate Catrinas.
Although Halloween on October 31st and Dia de los Muertos on November 1st and 2nd are strictly speaking two distinct events, in recent times the two festive dates have blended into each other illustrating how Mexico is adept at assimilating foreign things without losing its own identity—and often putting a particularly Mexican stamp on them.
La Ofrenda: an altar of remembrance
Local families will plan for Day of the Dead celebrations days, weeks, or perhaps even a whole year in advance. A focal point of the remembrance ritual is families creating ofrendas —altars with offerings to the deceased— which are set-up in homes or public spaces like parks or plazas, and also at local cemeteries where family members are buried.
These colorful altars, which are also an art form and personal expression of love towards one’s family members now passed, are not for worshiping but instead for the purpose of remembrance and celebration of a life lived.
They are usually layered: the top tier contains a picture or pictures of the remembered deceased as well as religious statues or symbols, especially that of La Virgen Guadalupe; the second tier will contain the ofrendas: toys are usually offered for deceased children, and bottles of tequila, mezcal, or atole for deceased adults. Personal ornaments, and/or the deceased’s favorite food or confection will also be present here, as will Pan de Muerto. The third tier will feature lit candles, and some people add a washbasin and a towel so that the spirits of the deceased may refresh themselves upon arrival at the altar.
Every altar will feature calaveras —decorated candied skulls made from sugar— as well as the bright orange marigolds, colloquially referred to as flor de muerto (“Flower of the Dead”), one of the iconic symbols woven into Day of the Dead celebrations across Mexico.
During the celebratory period, it’s traditional for families to visit local cemeteries where their loved ones are buried, where they clean and to decorate the graves with similar offerings to those included in the home’s altar.
Catrinas: artistic symbol of Day of the Dead celebrations
The character on which La Calavera Catrina —“The elegant skull”— is based was conceived by Mexican engraver José Guadalupe Posada. The original Catrina was titled La Calavera Garbancera: in the form of an artistic etching in zinc, composed for use as political satire around 1910, intended to poke fun at a certain social class of Mexicans who the artist portrayed as having European-aristocratic aspirations; thus the Catrina’s archetypal grandiose plumed hat of a style which passed through a period of high fashion in Europe during that age. This related article explains the history and culture of Catrinas in Mexico.
Pan de Muerto and hot chocolate: the traditional treat on Day of the Dead
One of the culinary highlights of the season is Pan de Muerto —Bread of the Dead— which is a semi-sweet sugar-dusted bread made from eggs and infused with natural citrus fruit flavors. It’s traditionally taken with hot chocolate that has been mixed with cinnamon and whisked, a pairing that creates a warming blend for enjoyment on a chilly November evening. Learn how to enjoy Pan de Muerto in Mexico.
Pátzcuaro and Oaxaca: popular towns to celebrate, with plenty of color elsewhere too
Day of the Dead is a holiday that attracts a certain fascination for visitors from abroad, and enjoyed by foreign residents who witness the unfolding of local festivities in their adopted towns and villages each year.
Celebrations in the colonial city of Oaxaca and the ancient highland town of Pátzcuaro are particularly well attended by foreign visitors, and an early booking for local accommodations is vital if you want to experience Day of the Dead at either of these places.
Even if you can’t get to Oaxaca or Pátzcuaro, you’ll discover that communities across Mexico compose their own interpretations of the event to celebrate Day of the Dead, and so wherever you are in Mexico this time of year you’ll have an opportunity to experience this distinctive celebration—one of the most colorful, poignant and atmospheric Mexico offers.
The precise ceremonies, offerings, and customs for Day of the Dead celebrations vary by region and town, but the essential traditions described here are an integral part of the event which is echoed all over Mexico.
A visit to a local cemetery, where family graves are dressed with color and decorations, a local park or plaza where ofrendas have been gathered, or a glimpse into one or more of the local homes which are opened-up to visitors during this period and where the lives of those past are lovingly remembered by those present is a rewarding and worthwhile cultural experience to behold.
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