It’s that time of the year again! The most colorful Mexican holiday is just around the corner and our preparations are in the full swing! Don’t let the name fool you, Day of the Dead in Mexico brings lots of fun and colorful activities. It is the time to celebrate the life and death, not to mourn and be sad.
If you know anything about Mexico and their culture, I am sure you heard about Mexican Day of the Dead or el Día de los Muertos in Spanish. Day of the Dead is an ancient Mexican holiday, and even it is celebrated in the same period, it is not a version of American Halloween. They have some common grounds, but the ideas behind are completely different.
Day of the Dead is a pre-Columbian holiday which was later integrated into the Christian traditions. Its roots come from Aztecs culture and other Mexican tribes which were honoring the spirits of those who have died. Until these days, it remained a holiday which honors the memory of the dead, as the name suggests.
The Aztecs celebrated it in another time period, but with the rise of Christianity in Mexico, the holiday was moved closer to All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The old traditions and practices were merged with new ones and since then the festivities are organized on November 1 and 2. while November 1 is dedicated to the children who passed away (called angelitos or little angels in Spanish) and November 2 is the day when we remember the adults. It is believed that on those days spirits of deceased come to visit their families in order to spend the entire day with them. Families do everything to welcome them as best as they can.
Mexican holidays are always colorful and they are always all about the family. El Día de los Muertos celebrates family and its members both alive and dead.
In rural Mexico where the most of the inhabitants are indigenous, some of the ancient traditions are still practiced. Some of them are a bit extreme and include the opening of boxes with bones of deceased and cleaning them, but many of them are practiced in the well-developed cities too. During these days Mexicans are decorating graves and spending time with their loved ones, making the altars in their homes, preparing the delicious food, bringing deceased’s favorite dishes to the graveyards and praying for deceased.
It is believed that during this time spirits of deceased come back to Earth to visit their living family members. These days are not the time to be sad, in contrary, they are full of joy and celebration. It keeps us in touch with those who we love and who we miss.
Preparing the food for the celebration
As in every celebration in Mexico, the food plays a significant part in Day of the Dead festivities. The morning of October 31 is reserved for a visit to the local market. The families buy different fruits which will be used in the altar decoration, like mandarins, lemons, nisperos, oranges and bananas.
The popular dishes prepared in this season are tamales, pumpkins, mole negro, hot artisanal chocolate, atole, champurrado, the bread of the dead and sugar skulls. Day of the Dead bread or Pan de Muertos is the main dish associate with this holiday. If you make only one dish for the celebration, it should be this one. It is a tasty, sweet rounded bread decorated with bread in shapes of the bones.
If you wish to make your altar decoration a bit more extreme, you could buy (or make) sugar skulls, called calaveras de azucar, which symbolize the life and death. They are usually made of aramanth and chocolate, decorated with different colors and often the names of deceased and placed on the altar. Nowadays, many other figures are made as well, as coffins and skeletons. You can buy them in every traditional market at the end of the October.
I must mention how this holiday can be extremely expensive for many Mexican families. All the fruits and decorations, different dishes, as well as this special bread, can be a major blow to the budget of numerous poor families. However, this holiday is so significant to them, they sometimes spend even a monthly income to prepare the celebration.
On the eve of October 31, Mexican families get together to prepare the altars (called “ofrendas” or the offerings in Spanish) in their homes to welcome the spirits. This is the way how they remember the deceased family members as well as honor the lives of those who were (and still are) important to them.
The altars usually consist of two or three levels. On the table, you can place one or two boxes to create different tires and display the items on the altar better. If there are two levels, one represents the Earth and the other Heaven. Altars with three levels represent Earth, Heaven, and Purgatory. Cover the boxes with the tablecloth of your choice, you can decide if it is going to be colorful or you will keep everything in tone.
Take two reeds (esp. cañas), make an arch over the altar and decorate it with flowers as well as mandarins and lemons. The arch symbolizes a way to the heaven, the path between life and death.
To decorate the altar you should use the orange marigold flowers (esp. cempasúchil, hr. kadifica) which are known to as a flower of the dead in Mexico. Because of their bright color and specific smell, they are believed to attract the souls of deceased to the offerings and they are traditionally used to honor the dead. You can put them in a vase or scatter them all around the altar.
Besides flowers, decorate with lighted candles (they are bringing light to the spirits and help them to find the way), photos of deceased (if you wish, you can skip if your altar is dedicated to more persons or it is not dedicated to anyone in particular, or if you simply do not like it) and bread of the dead. Besides the bread, you can put any other traditional food or food your ancestors liked. Candies, chocolate, and tamales are always welcome.
Besides the traditional items, every family puts the items deceased enjoyed during the life. It could be literally anything – a shot of mezcal, candies, … The only rule you should be following is that it means something you and your family. Even if you are not in Mexico, you can still make your altar anywhere in the world. It is one of the traditions we are going to nurture in our family.
After the altar is taken down, you can share the food with your family members. However, it is believed the offerings are left without the taste and smell after the spirits are gone. Would you like to see if it is truth? Jaime said it is and our bread last year got much drier than the one we kept on the table.
Going to the cemetery
Back in time, the deceased were usually buried in family courtyards so families prepared only altars at home. Today, when people are buried in graveyards, people started to decorate the graves too. In Oaxaca, families decorate the graves with flower petals, some people even spend the whole night in the cemetery, celebrating life and eating deceased’s favorite dishes.
Best places to visit for Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead is maybe the best time to visit Mexico. Festivities are organized in towns and cities all across the country, but locations do have different customs and ways how they celebrate. Even though you can enjoy those celebrations more or less anywhere in Mexico, some towns are known to organize bigger and more colorful festivities, especially southern regions of Oaxaca, Michoacan, and Chiapas.
In Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca you can enjoy tapetes de arena competition (artwork in the sand, inspired with catholic and Day of the dead motives) in Plaza de la Danza or check out the best altar contest in the main cemetery. The winner is the most good looking and the most traditional altar. Besides in the capital, you can enjoy colorful celebrations in surrounding towns of Zaachila, Etla, Tuxtepec and Xoxocotlan as well.
Michoacán is one of the Mexican states with the longest traditions of Day of the Dead festivities. In the town around the Pátzcuaro lake and Janitzio island the tradition of spending the nights awake in the graveyards (esp. ritual de velación) is still practiced. In the cities of Jarácuaro, Aracutín and Cuanajo you can find spectacular el Día de los Muertos decorations and offerings. In “pueblo mágico” Pátzcuaro you can feel the feast all around and the Pantheon is covered with offerings.
Huge Mexico City is filled with colors during the holiday season. The offerings are placed in many city museums, but probably the best place to visit is the Magic Quarter Mixquic, in the southeast of the city, where the tombs are wonderfully decorated and the pantheon of San Andrés is the center of happenings. You can also visit offerings in Ciudad Universitaria and Dolores Olmedo Museum to experience this wonderful holiday.
Ok, I guess you already got a clue about Day of the Dead in Mexico. This holiday is such an important aspect of Mexican culture that has been recognized by UNESCO as part of its intangible cultural heritage. The way how they celebrate life reflects the other aspects of Mexican culture as well.
The colorfulness, the positivity, and the family unity is what makes Mexican culture so distinctive and so valuable. I loved how Maggie from @travelwithMagz said she was in love with all the colors and how differently Mexicans celebrate death in comparison how they do it the US. In the US they mourn instead of celebrating people’s lives, after all – the same like we do it in Croatia.
Is Day of the Dead you favorite Mexican holiday too? 🙂
In September, Mexico celebrates its Independence day and everything in the country becomes green, white and red. For weeks before you can buy decorations everywhere you go. You got it, Mexican Independence day is the major Mexican celebration and it begins on 15 of September, on the eve of the Independence Day.
Every year, when the clock strikes 11 pm on 15th September, the President of Mexico rings the bell and shouts “Viva México!” (check out the entire speech below) from the balcony of the National Palace, before he rings the bell again and waves the flag. He shouts to the crowds gathered on Zocalo, the main square of Mexico City, and the crowds respond “Viva!” to the each shout.
It is the modern version of the famous “Grito de Dolores”(Dolores’s shout or cry for the independence, where Dolores is the name of the town where everything started) which serves as a reminder on those who fought for free Mexico and marks the beginning of the celebrations and festivities.
Dolores Hidalgo, a small Mexican town where the war started
Story about the Grito
The very first Grito happened more than 200 years ago, on 16 of September 1810 in the small town of Dolores, located in the state of Guanajuato.
The local priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla liberated the prisoners from the local prisons at the dawn of September 16. It happened right before he rang the church bells and called the people to fight for independence against Spaniards. It was the first movement which attracted larger crowds and started the 11 years long fight.
Even though the independence was officially proclaimed only in 1821, this date is considered to be one of the most important ones in Mexican history.
As you may notice, the original Grito happened on September 16, however, the celebrations start a day before. For that, we can thank Porfirio Diaz, a Mexican president from 1848 to 1876, whose birthday happened to be on September 15. He thought it would be great if he and his beloved Mexico shared a birthday so he moved the celebration!
GOOD TO KNOW
No, Cinco de Mayo it is NOT Mexican Independence Day. It marks the triumph of Mexican army against French troops in Puebla in 1862 and it is celebrated more in the USA than in Mexico itself! Battle of Puebla happened more than 50 years after and it is not a reason to eat tacos and drink margaritas like there is no tomorrow.
Independence Museum in Dolores de Hidalgo
In the small town of Dolores de Hidalgo, you can visit the church where Miguel Hidalgo rang a bell, as well as his house and the museum of Mexican Independence.
The museum is rather small but offers a great insight into what really happened and how the war started since it is located within the ex-prison. You can see the actual prison doors which were opened by Hidalgo and visiting its 7 exhibition rooms you can learn a lot about backgrounds and precursors of independence, the battle of Granaditas in Guanajuato, Hidalgo’s ending and patriotic symbols.
In the city known as the “Cradle of Independence” this museum is not to be missed to teach us about the most important events of this historical period.
Today, Mexican Independence day is celebrated with fireworks, parties, food and other festivities. Every state capital has its own military parade. The biggest one is, of course, organized in Mexico City.
The parade starts in Campo Marte (next to Chapultepec), continues on Paseo de la Reforma, Avenida Juarez, and 5 de Mayo to finish in Zocalo. Some of the typical dishes for the celebration are pozole, tacos de tinga, cochinita pibil, accompanied by tequila and mezcal.
Mexican flag and other patriotic souvenirs can be found everywhere! Everything you can imagine is sold in colors of the Mexican flag – papel picado, cute flags, mustache, chillies (little chili paprika holding the flag and beer) and you can find many stands around Zocalo in Mexico City.
The place to be around this days is Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico. Located on the corner of Zocalo, it is the perfect place for celebrating the Independence Day. Its hotel rooms and terrace offer magnificent views and allow you to enjoy the celebrations without being in the crowd.
Christmas is only a couple of days away! After Maja shared how they are spending holidays in Croatia, I will tell you something about Christmas traditions in Mexico and how my family celebrates this holidays in Oaxaca, Mexican state in the south of the country.
Holidays officially start on December 1 when we start to decorate the house. We buy the prettiest pine on the local market and start with putting the decorations up. In my house, we have the custom to decorate it with golden ornaments and many white lights placed around it. Underneath the tree we place a tablecloth, next to it a small Christmas village and behind it the nativity scene.
Days before Christmas in Mexico are full of festivities. From 16 to 24 of December we hold traditional parties called “Las Posadas”. These nine days represent nine months of Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. Traditionally, during the posada, the whole family gets together and perform the biblical journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We are walking around the block while singing Christmas songs and lighting sparklers and candles. When we reach the house, we split into two groups (the hosts and the guests) and we recreate the moment when Mary and Joseph were looking for a shelter (in Spanish posada means inn).
The special song called “pedir posada” is sung, asking the hosts to open the door of the house. The doors are opened and celebrations can start with breaking a piñata (or few of them) and serving traditional food and drinks. We usually eat Mexican snacks as medias tortas with beans and cheese, tostadas, atole, ponche de frutas, and candies. Between friends is common to have skipped the peregrination and go directly to food and drinks.
During the whole month, you can try traditional “buñuelos” which are like a big sweet tortilla. You can eat it with honey or special pinky sugar. If that is not enough sugar for you, you can accompany it with a cup of hot artisanal chocolate, atole or champurrado.
You might ask why piñatas for Christmas? Well, the original piñata was shaped like a star with seven points. Each point represented one of seven deadly sins. Piñatas are always made in bright colors and they look very attractive, which was a symbol of temptation and sins. Kids are usually hitting piñatas blindfolded which represent the will to overcome the sin.
Once you break the piñata (or when your faith overcame the sin), you will receive the rewards of the heaven, or in this case toys and candies. Back in the time, piñata were used as an allegory to help to evangelize the native people of Mexico. Because of that relation with the church, piñatas are still used for Christmas. However, today people buy any shape they can find, it is not only the star anymore.
23rd of December in Oaxaca there is a contest called “Noche de Rábanos” (Night of the Radishes). It is an opportunity for craftsmen to create amazing figures or historic scenes from the radish. The locals and thousands of tourists come over in the evening to admire their work. This event has its origin in the colonial period when Spaniards introduced the radish to Mexican people.
Oaxaca has a long wood carving tradition and a long time ago farmers started to carve the radish as well in order to get customers’ attention during the Christmas period so they would buy their wood products as well. Since 1897 there is a formal competition. It looks amazing so that evening you can enjoy their creativity, fireworks and also you can buy some of the handicrafts. However, the radish gets dry pretty soon and they wilt so the exposition lasts only for few hours. Also, you can’t eat the radish afterward because, in order to grow fast and big for the contest, they are full of chemicals.
Christmas day is marked by preparations for Christmas dinner. In the evening the whole family arrives at my aunt’s house and we celebrate our last posada. This posada is different because that was the day when Jesus was born. By tradition, posada is supposed to be celebrated at midnight, be we always do it a bit earlier, around 10 or 11 pm.
Each family has a sculpture of baby Jesus and after the last posada women take the sculpture in their arms and they sign a lullaby for him, playing a role of Mary. This tradition is called “arrullo del niño Dios” (it’s time to sleep baby-God). After the song, they place the baby into nativity scene and it is time to have dinner. We serve lots of different dishes like turkey, lamb, cod, salads, pork and other. I always eat a turkey leg, as you can see in the photo. 🙂 Again we smash a couple of piñatas and enjoy fireworks.
On Christmas day we have lunch at my parents’ house. Mom usually makes “romeritos“, southern Mexican dish. Again the family arrives and celebrations continue, but it is a bit quieter because everyone is tired from last night. Stores already start to offer big discounts, so sometimes we even go to the mall to buy some things, for example, cheap Christmas decorations for next year.
New Year is a little bit different than Christmas. Usually, we celebrate Christmas with mom’s side of the family and New Year with dad’s. We prepare dinner at home and how the night goes on, my father’s brothers and sisters join us. We dinner pasta, cod, and salad. At midnight, or to be more accurate – 12 seconds before midnight, we eat one grape each second. Each grape represents one month of the upcoming year and for each, we make a promise or we ask for a wish for this new year in front of us. It is very common to promise you will do exercise, lose some weight, eat healthily or wish to get a better job, be healthy or find the love of your life. When the clock strikes midnight, we make a toast, hug each other and congratulate. The dinner continues until 2 or 3 am. As you can see, it is not common to go out and party, we traditionally spend the evening with family.
Each grape represents one month of the upcoming year and for each, we make a promise or we ask for a wish for this new year in front of us. It is very common to promise you will do exercise, lose some weight, eat healthily or wish to get a better job, be healthy or find the love of your life. When the clock strikes midnight, we make a toast, hug each other and congratulate. The dinner continues until 2 or 3 am. As you can see, it is not common to go out and party, we traditionally spend the evening with family.
Holidays magic ends with January 6, “Día de los Reyes Magos”. It is a day when all good kids receive presents (like Santa Claus) and they are playing with them the whole day. In the evening we enjoy “Rosca de Reyes”. It is some kind of bread that looks like a big and very tasty donut. Inside of it are hidden 3 little toys. Each person cuts their piece of bread and if you get the toy you need to make tamales and atole on February 2, “Día de la Candelaria”. We usually eat this bread while drinking hot chocolate and after everyone says is time to start the diet 🙂