MEXICO CITY, October 3, 2010 – Celebrated on October 31 (Young Souls Day), November 1 (All Saints Day) and November 2 (All Souls Day), Day of the Dead is one of Mexico’s most important holidays paying homage to the dearly departed. 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 all over Mexico during these three days.
The Day of the Dead celebration shares a connection to the popular Halloween holiday celebrated in the United States on Oct. 31. The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (evening), meaning the night before All Hallows Day (also known as All Saints Day), which is celebrated on Nov. 1, as per the Catholic calendar. In the past, the Spanish church would obligate the indigenous cultures in Mexico to celebrate All Saints Day on Nov. 1, but they in turn celebrated the dead.
The origin of Day of the Dead can be traced to pre-Hispanic times and stemming from indigenous beliefs shared by the Aztecs, Mayans, Purepecha, Nahua, Totonac and Otomi. It is believed that during the Day of the Dead the souls of the departed return to visit living relatives. These ancient cultures all celebrated the return of these relatives with festivals and grand fanfare. Today, the Day of the Dead tradition is stronger than ever, with families gathering to honor their ancestors through elaborate ofrendas (altars). Ofrendas are typically decorated with cempasuchil (marigolds), candles, photographs of the departed, and the loved one’s favorite foods and beverages, as well as with many other small trinkets such as small coffins with pop-up skeletons. These altars range in size and are placed in both homes and at gravesites.
Along with ofrendas, calaveras (skulls) also form an important part of Day of the Dead celebrations. Originally, skulls and skeletons were represented in the art of pre-Hispanic Mexico, particularly used by the Aztec civilization, which ruled much of Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. The skull is also an important aspect of the altar, where they are often 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 angelitos (little angels) – the young souls of departed children, who return to earth in the late afternoon of October 31.
Calaveras went mainstream in the 19th century when Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1851 – 1913) placed them in his satirical artwork that commented on the corruption and social inequities of his time. In his more than 900 drawings, politicians and legendary figures inhabited a world of skeletons and skulls. One of Posada’s most famous drawings is La Catrina, which pokes fun at the elegantly dressed French ladies of his era.
A 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 this bread in remembrance of their deceased loved one. Another traditional dish made during these days is the tasty calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin), prepared with cinnamon and brown sugar.
While the entire nation celebrates Day of the Dead, some of the “liveliest” displays are in Janitzo, Michoacan; Oaxaca City, Oaxaca; and the village of Mizquic on the outskirts of Mexico City. Other noteworthy festivals are held in Merida, Yucatan; Huejutla, Hidalgo; Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas; and Jesus Maria, Nayarit.
Oaxaca City, Oaxaca
For one of Mexico’s most colorful and magical displays of Day of the Dead, one can do no better than visiting Oaxaca City. Local markets burst with preparatory activities while playful skeleton imagery adorns storefronts and home windows.
The festival formally begins on Oct. 31, where families honor their ancestors or deceased loved ones by creating elaborate in-house altars. Over the years, the altars have evolved into objects of art, making this celebration a true exhibition. Typically, homes are open to those interested in paying homage to their dead. Throughout the three days, the city arranges event at the local San Miguel Cemetery. Events include exhibitions, altar competitions, music and prayers for the dead.
Another mainstay during the festivities is the Oaxacan mole negro (black mole), a rich sauce consisting of more than 20 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. For more information, please visit http://www.oaxaca.travel/index.php?lang=en or www.dia-de-los-muertos.com.
Janitzio, Michoacan State
In the heart of southern Michoacan State is Lake Patzcuaro, home to the island of Janitzio, which is only accessible by boat. The island of nearly 1,500 inhabitants is renowned for its impressive and colorful Day of the Dead celebrations.
Pre-preparations abound as many families even grow their own cempasuchils, believing that doing so is more appropriate for their offerings. The city squares fill with stands that offer all types of colorful figures, the most popular made of sugar.
At night, boats are decorated with candles and flowers, loaded with local villagers and visitors who are taken to the island’s cemetery. There, they spend the night, summoning back the dead in celebration as the sounds of bells ringing, people chanting and the smell of incense fills the air. One the sun sets, the dancing begins. The Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Old Men), native to Michoacan State and believed to date back to pre-Hispanic times, is performed as a ritual honoring the sun. For more information, please visit http://turismomichoacan.gob.mx/.
Mixquic, Mexico City
Only 25 miles southeast of Mexico City is the village of Mixquic, a magnet for visitors and locals during day of the dead. The area takes on a busy and festive air in the final days of October as merchants set up street stands to hawk their wares for the Day of the Dead. In the cemetery, all family burial plots are elaborately embellished with an array of earthly delights in the hope of luring departed spirits.
Similar to the Halloween tradition in the United States, on the night of Oct. 31, children go from house to house asking for goodies. Most homes have large, intricate altars for Day of the Dead. Children kneel at the altar and recite prayers before being offered food gifts. Then, they move on to the next home repeating the same ritual. To light their way, children carry carved green and white chilacayote (squash), which look incredibly similar to jack-o-lanterns.
As darkness falls upon Mixquic, the glow of thousands of votive candles illuminates the way for the dead. At midnight they are called home with the mournful tolling of bells. Then, each soul is lovingly remembered with recitations of the Rosary. The food-laden street fair roars outside the church graveyard, villagers descend upon the cemetery with food, drink, candles and cempasuchil. For more information, please visit http://www.mexicocity.gob.mx/index.php?idioma=en or http://www.tlahuac.df.gob.mx/.
Residents of the Yucatan Peninsula call their Day of the Dead festival, Hanal Pixan, a feast for all souls, and capital city Merida is at the heart of this celebration. Everything starts at city cemeteries where 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. The adults, Pixanes, soon follow on Nov. 1 and 2.
The celebrations include the deceased’s favorite foods and candies, which are placed on the tables with long white cloths. Other common offerings to the departed are ceramics, images of saints, flowers, candles and cigarettes. Groups of families unite to prepare pibipollo, a seasoned chicken tamale wrapped in plantain leaves and cooked underground in a pit barbeque. For more information, please visit http://merida.gob.mx/turismo/index_in.htm or http://yucatan.travel/en/.
Huasteca Potosina, San Luis Potosi
Area stores stock early with candles, paper flowers, fireworks, tobacco, bread, candy, chocolate and coffee to meet the demand of residents that begin building the cempasuchil arches that frame their alters on Oct. 30. These alters, which represent the way in and out of the underworld, are lit from above with candles and incense, and feature flower petal carpets to help guide the spirits back to the world of the living.
Those first offerings are made for the departed children who are given chocolates, yucca, sheets made with pumpkin seeds, pork and chicken cuatzam (tamales). Children also receive corn and bean seeds to promote fertility, salt for those who have not been baptized and water for those who come back tired.
All Saints’ Day is celebrated by the lighting of incense and traditional dances that last the entire night. On Nov. 2, families go to the cemetery to clean and decorate their loved one’s graves. It is believed that the spirits enter the land of the living at this time and leave on the last day of the month, when families return to the cemetery and redecorate the new homes of their loved ones. For more information, please visit http://www.culturaspopulareseindigenas.gob.mx/index.php/fiestas-populares/127-la-celebracion-de-muertos-qxantoloq.html.