At first glance, the Mexican custom of Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — may sound much like the U.S. custom of Halloween. After all, the celebration traditionally starts at midnight the night of Oct. 31st, and the festivities are abundant in images related to death.
But the customs have different origins, and their attitudes toward death are different: In the typical Halloween festivities, death is something to be feared. But in el Día de los Muertos, death — or at least the memories of those who have died — is something to be celebrated.
Día de los Muertos, which continues until November 2nd, has become one of the biggest holidays in Mexico. Its origins are distinctly Mexican: During the time of the Aztecs, a month-long summer celebration was overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. After the Spanish conquest and Catholicism became the dominant religion, the customs became intertwined with the Christian commemoration of All Saints’ Day on November 1st.
November 1st, All Saints Day, and November 2nd, All Souls Day are marked throughout Mexico by a plethora of intriguing customs that vary widely according to the ethnic roots of each region. Common to all, however, are colorful adornments and lively reunions at family burial plots, the preparation of special foods, offerings laid out for the departed on commemorative altars and religious rites that are likely to include fireworks.
In most localities November 1st is set aside for remembrance of deceased infants and children, often referred to as angelitos (little angels). Those who have died as adults are honored November 2nd.
From mid-October through the first week of November, Mexico begins to replete with the special accouterments for Día de los Muertos. These include all manner of skeletons and other macabre toys; intricate tissue paper cut-outs called papel picado; elaborate wreaths and crosses decorated with paper or silk flowers; candles and votive lights; and fresh seasonal flowers, particularly zempazuchiles (marigolds) and barro de obispo (cockscomb). Among the edible goodies offered are skulls, coffins and the like made from sugar, chocolate or amaranth seeds and special baked goods, notably sugary sweet rolls called pan de muerto that come in various sizes invariably topped with bits of dough shaped like bones and, in some regions, unadorned dark breads molded into humanoid figures called animas (souls). All of these goods are destined for the ofrenda de muertos (offering to the dead).
At home members of the family create elaborate altars in honor of deceased relatives, decorating them with papel picado, candles, flowers, photographs of the departed, candy skulls inscribed with the name of the deceased, and a selection of his or her favorite foods and beverages. The latter often include bottles of beer or tequila, cups of atole (corn gruel) or coffee, and fresh water, as well as platters of rice, beans, chicken or meat in mole sauce, candied pumpkin or sweet potatoes and the aforementioned breads.
These Day of the Dead rituals are echoed in cities and villages throughout Mexico. As each locality offers distinctive traditions and a unique flavor bound to fascinate the curious traveler.