Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) is a colorful and raucous celebration of mortality that has spread from Mexico to the United States and beyond. Day of the Dead is recognized by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Day of the Dead is a peculiar Mexican institution that follows from Christian—particularly Catholic—celebrations of All Saints Day that have been held on November 1 for centuries, but blended with elements of Mesoamerican celebrations that have been handed down generation-to-generation for centuries (or more). Local customs that anthropomorphize Death as an angel, saint, or colorful skeleton vary from region to region. Many aspects of the celebration predate Christianity.
The most traditional celebrations of Day of the Dead reflect traditions of the Toltec, Aztec, and other Nahua civilizations. Sadness or mourning were considered inappropriate at this time because the Day of the Dead was a time to help the spirits of the dead come home, rejoin the community for a night, and be loved by those who held their memories dear.
The Spanish name Día de Muertos is sometimes anglicized as Día de los Muertos to conform with English conventions. Confusingly, this has even been exported back to Mexico and you will sometimes see Hispanic celebrations using this variant name.
- Ofrenda - an altar to the dead is constructed, usually in the home, with a cloth draped over a table or shelf, pictures of the deceased, flowers, sugar skulls, and some of the deceased's favorite things (cigars, tequila) are set out for them. Usually their favorite dish is prepared and set out for them as well.
- Marigolds - flowers are an important part of most ofrendas and the yellow marigold is the preferred flower. Flowers represent the brevity of life and marigolds have a strong, distinctive scent that helps guide the dead spirits.
- Sugar skulls - called calacas, the sugar skulls often are decorated with the deceased's name and placed on the ofrenda
- Pan de Muerto - is a light sweet bread flavored with orange and anise, it is set out on the ofrenda to feed the dead spirits
Like Christmas, Day of the Dead can be as subdued and dignified or as outlandish and chintzy as you want. Creating an altar to remember a loved one who is departed can be a powerful activity—especially if community members can leave offerings (ofrendas) as well. If you're just looking for the festivities, make sure that you try delicious sweet breads and candies known as sugar skulls. Day of the Dead is all about colorful folk art, from costumes and elaborate make-up to flower arrangements and paintings. If you're not ready to paint a mural, try making some artistic skulls (calaveras) of your own and paint your face.
The biggest celebrations will inevitably be in large Mexican cities—Mexico City, Monterrey, Puebla—but smaller towns across the central and southern parts of the country through the Yucatán Peninsula will have altars, food vendors, music, and likely some processional. Tradition often burns hottest and brightest in the smaller towns. Additionally, cities in the United States with large Mexican-American populations will have celebrations and the stores will sell sugar skulls and pan de muerto.
Regions with strong indigenous cultures often express their heritage with unique tangents on the Day of the Dead theme. Be aware that Day of the Dead celebrations often start as much as a week before November 1 and end on All Souls Day, November 2.
Some of the best-known Day of the Dead celebrations include:
- Mexico City – The James Bond movie, Spectre, featured a raucously festive downtown Mexico City Day of the Dead parade. Chilangos decided it looked like fun, and so it's become an annual tradition. The parade actually happens the Saturday before Day of the Dead (for 2023, the parade will be October 28).
- Mexico City – Xochimilco is a part of the city best navigated on colorful party boats called trajineras. It's also a part of the city with a rather morbid Day of the Dead tradition featuring La Llorona—a woman mourning the loss of her children, who she drowned in the canals. Her ghost now roams the canals on Day of the Dead.
- Mixquic – The once remote village of Mixquic is now encompassed in the megalopolis of Mexico City, but it will still take a good hour and a half to get there. Mixquic is famous for its La Alumbrada celebration of Day of the Dead. All electricity is turned off in the village and the only illumination comes from seemingly millions of candles in the candlelight vigil ceremony in the local cemetery.
- Oaxaca – has some of the most intense and most authentic Day of the Dead celebrations. Events start several days before the Night of the Dead. There are events in the city as well as nearby villages. Visit the cemeteries, especially: Xoxocotlan, Atzompa, and Xochimilco. Dia de los Inocentes remembers the spirits of dead children, whose spirits arrive at midnight November 1 (October 31 night) while the Day of the Dead (November 2) remembers adult spirits, the best place to be at midnight November 2 (Nov 1 night) is probably the cemetery in Xoxocotlán. Tapetes (carpets made of sand) are created in some communities, especially Zaachila. The community of Jalatlaco has a big parade called a comparsa both November 1 and November 2. In the community of Etla, they celebrate with a Muerteada, in which locals dress in costumes with bells and mirrors. The mirrors scare off witches and evil spirits.
- Janitzio – The Patzcuaro area is rich in Purhepecha tradition, particularly in late October and early November when the town fills with visitors for one of Mexico's largest annual Day of the Dead celebrations. Purhepecha tradition holds that spirits of the dead rest in the waters of Lake Patzcuaro, and on the Night of the Dead, they float up and make their way to the top of the island to celebrate Day of the Dead with the beloved families they left behind. The spirits are guided up the hill by local fishermen waving their hooped butterfly nets.
- Aguascalientes – The city's Festival de las Calaveras runs from October 28 to November 2 and features a downtown parade along Avenida Madero.
- Huasteca Potosina – In the ancestral homelands of the Huastec people, several villages celebrate Dia de Muertos as Xantolo with several special events. The town of Aquismón has nightly Xantolo celebrations for a few days, centered on the zocalo (town square). Musicians play for comparsas, groups of dancers performing huastec dances, catrina statues dress in elaborate costumes, and cut paper banners (called papel picado) rustles from lines strung across the pathways. The town of Tamaleton is the "official" home Xantolo, and the mayor opens with a proclamation as dancers dressed as catrinas and youth dressed as devils parade around the audience. The Voladores of Tamaleton perform the dance of the hawk as their descending flight takes them down the pole.
- Chignahuapan – Mesoamerican beliefs hold that spirits of the dead need to cross the Chignahuapan River to reach the mythical city of the dead, Mitlan. November 1 is the town's annual Festival de Luz y Vida when locals build a pyramid and have a procession of lights to help guide the dead across the river.
Stay safe and respect
Day of the Dead festivities are a mixture of celebrations of life as well as memorials for the dead. Please be aware that the mixture between ironic corniness and remembrance of lost loved ones can be a thin line. If you're unsure of the tone of a particular gathering, make sure to stay on the outskirts and don't interrupt.