It’s that time of year again. Halloween is just around the corner and everyone is scrambling to get their best costumes out in time for the big party. Whether they’re going trick-or-treating with their children or having a few drinks with their friends at night, Halloween is a big night to celebrate around the world.
But ho and behold, what about Day of the Dead? That’s right. In Mexico, we don’t do Halloween (well, that’s a lie – we definitely do); but we also celebrate Day of the Dead and as an Exotic Travelers member, if you’re spending time in our Karisma resorts in Mexico anytime at the end of October or beginning of November, you must know about this holiday (and all our other traditions throughout the year!). If not, we’re here to give you all the fun facts.
Day of the Dead: the origins
This festival dates back to the Aztecs, who used to celebrate Mictecacihuatl (try pronouncing that!), the Lady of the Dead. The tradition carried on, albeit with modifications, but continues being celebrated today with the same purpose: to celebrate the life of those who have parted. The celebration went through some changes with Catholicism, and is now celebrated in a two-day holiday starting on November 1st and continuing to November 2nd, in accordance to the catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. In fact, November 1st celebrates children or infants who have parted, while the 2nd is for everyone.
The fiesta is meant to help the souls of the dead in their journey to the afterlife. Now that you’ve got the grasp of the origins of this beautiful holiday, let’s get into the fun details!
We’ll get into the yummy food in a second. First things first. If you want to properly celebrate Día de los Muertos, there will be altars involved. These are built for specific people who have parted and people set them up at home, offices, or streets to help the deceased find their way back to the living world and spend the day with family. The way altars work is by decorating it with sugar skulls, flowers (cempasuchil, specifically), candles, papel picado, as well as drinks and food. The idea is to put out your deceased relative’s favorites to lure them back. Oh, also add a photo of the person and pan de muerto!
What people eat and drink during Day of the Dead varies across the country, but the most popular are the sugar skulls and the pan de muerto. It is tradition to gift sugar skulls for friends and family with their name written across the forehead. This is not a death wish for them; au contraire, it is a celebration of their life and a way to recognize them as someone important. If you receive a sugar skull during Day of the Dead, you should be grateful – you are being told that if you are ever gone, you will be deeply missed.
Now, other foods that are traditional during this feast are tamales, atole, and mole. Like every other Mexican holiday, food is a huge part and it will not be missing.
You won’t go to a Day of the Dead party. Leave that for Halloween. People won’t dress up and go celebrate the dead. People get together at cemeteries and light candles by their loved one’s grave. They might bring food, drinks and music and spend the day with them. This is not creepy; in fact, cemeteries light up and are colorful, full of – ironically – life. In bigger cities, there might be small parades and people will get together at home for dinner (see above) and to remember those who have parted.
In some places such as Xochimilco or Mixquic in Mexico City, stalls line the streets offering all sorts of Day of the Dead-related things, such as food, clothes, flowers, and more. At Mexico City’s center, the Zócalo, you will get to see a wide array of altars competing for the grand prize. In places such as Oaxaca, Michoacán, Aguascalientes and other states, many traditions and rituals, as well as parades, are performed throughout the two days. Oh, and don’t forget about the markets!
Back in the 1910s, the iconic Catrina skull icon was born, sketched by José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist. Although it was meant to be a symbol of the discrepancies between the upper and lower classes of Mexico, it soon became the symbol for the Day of the Dead. Today, many people dress up as Catrinas and paint their faces as skulls to celebrate this festival.
Día de los Muertos vs. Halloween
Mexicans do celebrate Halloween, even though there is an unspoken feeling that this Americanized holiday has slightly taken over their tradition. Day of the Dead is more about spending time with family and friends and reflecting on the fragility of life itself. However, as many of us know, a Mexican will hardly ever refuse a party, so they will surely be out on October 31st in their best costumes drinking a tequila or two.
Bueno, ¿ya están listos? It’s time to get on with this Mexican tradition and celebrate the true spirit of this country’s fellowship during Day of the Dead.