Mexico’s Day of the Dead extended holiday is a unique celebration of life that unites the country on Oct. 31 (Young Souls Day), Nov. 1 (All Saints Day) and Nov. 2 (All Souls Day). With each state paying homage to deceased loved ones in slightly different but equally colorful ways, travelers can witness incredible displays of tradition and culture wherever in Mexico they choose to visit.
The Day of the Dead observances were born in prehispanic Mexico, and stemmed from the indigenous beliefs shared by the Aztecs, Mayans, Purepecha, Nahua, Totonac and Otomi that the souls of the deceased return annually to visit living relatives and eat and drink with them. These ancient cultures all celebrated the return of their dearly departed with festivals and fanfare.
Day of the Dead alive and well today
From dancing Calacas (skeletons) to chocolate coffins, today’s Day of the Dead celebrations continue the festive tradition and are alive with activity because in Mexico, loved ones don’t ever truly die.
Families gather to honor their ancestors through ofrendas (altars), typically decorated with cempasuchil (marigolds), candles, photographs of the departed and the deceased’s favorite foods and beverages, as well as many other small trinkets, including small coffins, often with pop-up skeletons. These altars range in size and are placed both in homes and at the gravesites.
Calaveras (skulls) form an important part of today’s Day of the Dead celebrations. Originally, skulls and skeletons were represented in the art of prehispanic Mexico, particularly the Aztec civilization which ruled much of Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest.
The skulls became part of popular culture and moved into the mainstream in the 19th century when Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913) placed them in everyday situations in his satirical political artwork that commented on the corruption and social inequities of his time. In Posada’s more than 900 drawings, politicians and legendary figures inhabited a world of skeletons and skulls.
Sugar skulls are another important part of the altar, and are decorated with paper foil for eyes and colored icing for hair. Names can be added to the skull and Mexican children often exchange named skulls with their friends. Sweets and candy skulls are traditionally intended for the angelitos (little angels)—the young souls of departed children, who return to earth in the late afternoon of Oct. 31.
Another Day of the Dead must-have is pan de muertos (bread of the dead), made with anise, sugar, butter, eggs, flour, yeast and orange peel, and decorated with strips of dough simulating bones. It is tradition for families to come together and share bread in remembrance of their deceased loved ones. Another traditional dish during this holiday is the tasty calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin), prepared with cinnamon and brown sugar.
Below an overview of some of the more lively and well-known Day of the Dead celebrations.
Residents of the Yucatan Peninsula call their festival Hanal Pixan, a feast for all souls, and capital city Merida is at the heart of this celebration. Everything starts at cemeteries as families come together to clean and decorate loved one’s graves in preparation for their visit. The first souls to find their way home are the children, Pixanitos, who return Oct. 31, with the adults, or Pixanes, soon following on Nov. 1 and 2.
The celebrations include the deceased’s favorite foods and candies, and these are placed on tables with long white cloths. Other common offerings to the departed are ceramics, images of saints, flowers, candles, cigarettes, candies and a variety of traditional foods and drinks. Groups of families unite to prepare pibipollo, a seasoned chicken tamale wrapped in plantain leaves and cooked underground in a pit barbeque. On Nov. 7, families return to the cemetery the withered flowers and plant new ones.
Oaxaca, Oaxaca State
For one of Mexico’s most colorful and magical displays of Day of the Dead, visit Oaxaca City in Oaxaca. Local markets burst with preparatory activities, and playful skeleton imagery adorns storefronts and home windows.
The festival formally begins on Oct. 31, where families pay honor to their ancestors or deceased loved ones by creating elaborate in-house altars. Over the years, the altars have evolved into objects of art, and homes are open to those interested in paying homage to their dead, making this celebration a true exhibition.
Throughout the three days, the city arranges events at the local San Miguel Cemetery, such as exhibitions, altar competitions, music and prayers for the dead. In Oaxaca City’s zocalo (main square), competing groups of students mold giant three-dimensional sand paintings depicting tombs, skeletons, ghosts and other aspects of death.
Another mainstay during the festivities is the Oaxacan mole negro (black mole), a rich sauce consisting of more than twenty different spices and considered the “king of moles” in the region. Typically served in tamales, the savory paste is enjoyed by both the living and the dead.
Chichen-Itza, the World Wonder
Swiss-based New7Wonders Foundation is revising the original seven ancient wonders of the world, and Mexico’s Chichen-Itza in Yucatan State is one of 21 finalists to become a new Seven World Wonder. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, Chichen-Itza is considered to have been one of the greatest Mayan centers of the Yucatan peninsula, and today is one of the largest and most impressive archaeological sites in Mexico.
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