What is Day of the Dead?
“Dia De Los Muertos”
First of all, it is not a Mexican version of Halloween. They are both different.
Day of the Dead is where Mexicans remember and honour their loved ones that have passed away. The event is not gloomy and instead it is colourful, festive and meant to celebrate the dead.
The belief is that the spirits return to the world of the living for one day. Leading up to this day there are week long festivities and events.
When is Day of the Dead?
The official Day of the Dead falls on November 2nd every year.
The real celebrations begin in late October, different regions have different events.
This year the celebrations fall on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. If you are in Mexico City during that time there are also celebrations on October 24th/25th/26th.
Generally speaking these are the dates where celebrations will be happening all throughout Mexico.
October 31st - the eve of Dia De Los Muertos. Known as Noche De Brujas or “Night of the Witches”.
November 1st - Dia De Los Angelitos or “Day of Little Angels”. Where they commemorate deceased children.
November 2nd is the actual Day of the Dead. Where they commemorate the passing of adults.
Traditions of Day of the Dead
Altars or “Ofrendas”: these centerpieces can be found in doorways, public areas and on the street. They are used to help the spirits and souls find their way and welcome them back home. They are usually made up of different levels, often two levels symbolizing heaven and earth.
Offerings are made such as water and food including: sweets, bread, gifts, crosses and small trinkets. You will also see lots of Marigold flowers, which is the main flower of Dia De Los Muertos.
The main part of the altar is usually a photo of the dead relative and you will see a small plate of salt. This is used as a purifier element.
Alters for children that have passed are set up on the eve of October 31st and they will have baby’s breath flowers: the white colour symbolises the purity of the children’s souls. The children's alters will also have hot chocolate, sweet tamales and toys. On the eve of November 1st the elements can be eaten or removed.
Thereafter it is time to honour the adults, quite often you will see alcohol and cigarettes displayed on the centrepieces.
All throughout this period and leading up to the event, families will head to the cemeteries and people will clean and maintain the tombstones in preparation for Day of the Dead.
On the final night people will often spend the whole night in the graveyard.
They will have picnics with family and decorate the tombstones. You will see thousands of candles and the whole cemetery will have a beautiful glow.
The maya believe that it is not the end of life - it is the next chapter and that their soul will go to another realm. Visiting the graveyard after dark is not eerie and is seen as a joyous occasion.
When you think of Day of the Dead you usually think of the face paintings of skulls and flowers. The recent movie “Coco” has made this event even more famous.
Some designs include:
The most recognisable design is the The “La Catrina” or elegant skull.
The design was created back in 1913 by Jose Guadalupe Posada, a political cartoonist and is supposed to resemble a wealthy lady in skeleton form donning a fancy floral hat. The concept of the design was to show that no matter how wealthy you are in life, you will all end up dead in the end.
Another popular face painting design is the marigold flower. The face paints are often vibrant in colour and certain colours have symbolism. Painting your face yellow for example represents the sun and unity - meaning we are all the same. Whereas painting your face purple represents mourning and grief.
Monarch butterflies are thought to represent the soul of the departed.
Painting your face white represents the spirit and hope and is a popular choice.
In Merida I opted for a black and white skull design. There are stalls all around town and often some located outside the graveyard if you want to get yours done.
Day of the Dead Food
Food is an integral part of Mexican culture, so it is no surprise that there is special food for Day of the Dead celebrations.
Pan De Muertos
This special bread can be found all around the country in the weeks leading up the festivities. The bread is soft and flavoured with citrus fruit and then topped with sugar. The shape of the loaf is supposed to represent small bones.
Sugar skulls are known worldwide as the symbol for Day of the Dead. Throughout the towns you will find them in markets and shops everywhere. They are made of sugar and icing, but really they are not supposed to be eaten. They are used for decoration. If you really want to indulge, you can buy chocolate skulls.
I highly recommend buying a small ceramic skull to remember your experience. When I was there I was backpacking and could only purchase a tiny little one, but I really wish I had the room for an actual skull sized one.
This dish is prepared on the official Day of the Dead (November 2nd) and is more typically found in and around Oaxaca. It is a rich sauce made of chocolate, peppers and slow cooked burnt chilli’s - that’s where the deep colour comes from. The sauce is served with chicken and eaten with corn tortillas and white rice. Maybe don’t try the ice cream version...
“Muchipollo” or “Pib” are chicken tamales which are packaged in banana leaves and baked in an underground oven. There are many varieties of tamales and you have to try them to have an authentic Mexican experience.
Day of the Dead etiquette
Dia de los Muertos is an important family-based festival. Avoid any potential cultural no-nos by observing a few rules during your visit:
Always ask first
When you approach an altar or a grave and there are people there, ask for permission before taking a picture. It's only polite. More often than not they will be very friendly.
Remember it is not Halloween
Always remind yourself that this is not Halloween and it is not supposed to be scary or morbid. Leave the Jack O’ Lantern at home.
Come bearing gifts
In many areas, visitors to home altars are expected to bring a token offering, whether it's specially baked pan de muerto or tequila. Observe the traditions and soak this experience up.
Check your local area
Each location around Mexico will have different events, the most popular event is in the capital Mexico City.
Below I have supplied links to some of the different cities around Mexico.
Mexico City: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2380307/mexicocitystreets.com/2019/08/26/day-dead-events-mexico-city-2019/