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.
What is Day of the Dead all about?
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.
How to make Day of the Dead altars
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? 🙂
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