One of Mexico’s most important religious holidays is celebrated on All Saint’s Day (Nov 1) and All Soul’s Day (Nov 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.
Far from being a morbid event, Day of Dead emphasizes remembrance of past lives and celebration of the continuity of life. This acknowledgement of life’s continuity has roots which go back to some of Mexico’s oldest civilizations: Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Purepecha. The Aztecs, too, celebrated Day of the Dead, although earlier (August) on the current calendar.
Day of the Dead is celebrated passionately throughout Mexico, and especially so in smaller provincial towns and cities.
One of the culinary highlights of the season is “Pan de Muerto” (Bread of the Dead) which is a semi-sweet sugar-coated 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 makes for a perfect blend on a chilly November evening.
Planning for Day of the Dead can be done days, weeks or even a whole year in advance, during which time family members will gather ofrendas, offerings, to the dead. Toys are usually offered for deceased children and bottles of tequila, mezcal, or atole for deceased adults. Trinkets, or the deceased’s favorite food or candy, may also be offered on the grave.
During the celebratory period, it’s traditional for families to visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried to clean and to decorate the graves with the offerings. Offerings are also put in homes, usually with foods such as caramelized pumpkin, Pan de Muerto and small sugar skulls which are sometimes engraved with the deceased person’s name. Decorations usually include orange marigold flowers called cempaxochitl, or Flor de Muerto (“Flower of the Dead”).
Day of the Dead is a holiday that attracts a certain fascination for visitors from abroad. Celebrations in the city of Oaxaca and the town of Patzcuaro are particularly well attended by foreign visitors; early bookings for local accommodation are essential if you want to experience Day of the Dead at either of these places.
The precise ceremonies, offerings and customs for Day of the Dead celebrations vary by region and town. However, the fundamental traditions described here are echoed all over Mexico and a visit to a cemetery, where the graves are bursting with color and decorations, and the lives of those past are lovingly remembered by those present, is a worthwhile inclusion to your experiences of Mexican culture during this time of year.