Day of the Dead

Did you know that Halloween isn’t the only holiday that takes place in autumn where you can find people celebrating by dressing up as skeletons as well as donning masks, makeup and fabulous costumes? It’s not. In fact, it is immediately followed by the Day of the Dead – which takes place starting on November 1st and ending on November 2nd. Day of the Dead – or Día de los Muertos, is celebrated mainly, or perhaps most festively, in Mexico and other Latin American countries – although it has gained popularity in the United States as well. And, it has no association with Halloween whatsoever, except its close proximity to October 31st.

Originating in Mexico, Day of the Dead was established to honor loved ones who have passed away – as well as to encourage them to visit their remaining relatives. But make no mistake, this is not done in a somber way, instead it is a celebration of the lives they led – a happy occasion and commemorated in such a way because it is believed the dead would be insulted by mourning their loss or being sad.

Now, I would imagine that most people have at least heard of Day of the Dead (thanks to Disney’s Coco), but many are not aware that it is actually celebrated for two days. The reason why? The first day honors the children who have died – referred to as Día de los Angelitos or Day of the Little Angels and the second day – All Souls’ Day – honors the adults who have passed.

Intrigued? Well, then read on as we take a look at exactly what these celebrations entail!

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Ofrendas or Altars
One of the standard fixtures of the Day of the Dead are private altars that are erected to honor deceased family members. The altars – or ofrendas – are beautifully decorated and adorned with memorabilia and pictures – and may also hold certain types of food or drink that were enjoyed by the departed when they were alive. The altars are typically set up in individual homes – but they can also be found in public places and many even set them up in cemeteries next to their loved one’s tombstone. On the Day of the Dead, families gather around these elaborate altars to pray, share stories and tell jokes about those they have lost with the intent being that the dead will see and hear what the family has done to honor them and thus encourage them to visit.

Food

Food – and drink – are a huge part of Day of the Dead festivities. The most popular delicacy to eat on these days is pan de muerto or bread of the dead. Pan de muerto is a yeast heavy, sweet egg bread that is flavored with orange or anise – or both – and is often topped with sugar or sprinkles. Its shape can vary, as do the interpretations of what the shapes mean. Other popular foods that can be found at most Day of the Dead celebrations are calaveras de azúcar or sugar skulls, tamales which are small cakes of dough steamed in a corn or banana leaf and Mole Negro – a very rich sauce made of peppers and chocolate. You also may find Day of the Dead butter cookies, candied pumpkin and Oaxacan hot chocolate (which is not as sweet as hot chocolate served here in the US and is usually spiked with spices) being served.

Cemetery Visits

Day of the Dead is also the time of year when families visit the graves of their loved ones to spruce them up – not unlike Memorial Day here in the US. They’ll do a spring – or fall cleaning of sorts – such as disposing of weeds, planting fresh flowers, adding decorative touches and perhaps even erecting an altar to honor them (see above). They also bring them gifts – such as food and drink they enjoyed while on earth for the adults and toys and trinkets for the children. Some burn an incense known as copal that is a substance or resin from the Buresa tree family, long used in Mexican and Central American ceremonies. Some may enjoy a hearty picnic at the grave – remember this is a celebration – not a time of sadness – and there are some places where you will even find families spending the night at the cemetery to be close to their relatives.

Parades

The parades hosted in honor of the Day of the Dead are guaranteed to be unlike any parade you have ever attended. They are filled with elaborate floats, dancers, musicians and costumed revelers – all marching along to the beat of mariachi music. Participants are typically dressed up as either elegantly dressed skeletons – also known as catrinas – via face paint or masks – or in some places dressed to look like a departed loved one. Women attending the event normally wear long, flowery Mexican dresses and floral headpieces while the men often wear formal attire including black hats. These over the top celebrations more often than not see spectators taking on the role of participants as they dance their way through the streets. Oh, and by participants, I mean pretty much the entire town. Those in larger cities – like Mexico City – can draw hundreds of thousands!

Symbols

The skull – or calaveras – is the most common symbol of the Day of the Dead. You will find them placed on the altars erected to lost loved ones, made from sugar to enjoy as a sweet treat – some even shape their pan de muerto into the shape of a skull. Even the humorous epitaphs that are penned in the deceased’s honor are called calaveras literarias – or literary skulls. Right up there with skulls are Cempasuchiles which are also sometimes called flor de muertos or flowers of the dead and are actually orange and yellow Mexican marigolds. Why these particular blooms? Both their cheerful color and pleasing scent are thought to bring spirits from their place of rest back to visit with their families. You will find them at gravesites, on altars, in centerpieces, adorning floats – pretty much everywhere you look at a traditional Day of the Dead celebration.

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And there you have it – a Day of the Dead 101 of sorts. There are plenty of destinations you can head to if you want to celebrate authentically – Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru and more – as well as Mexico and now many cities in the US as well. So why not brush up on your face painting skills and contact your Travel Gurus to get you booked to a North American, South American or Central American destination for the festivities?

Namaste!

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