Day of the Dead is perhaps Mexico's most famous celebration. So what is it and how is it celebrated?
What is Day of the Dead?
Day of the Dead, or “Día de Muertos” in Spanish, is a festival to commemorate the dead, and a public holiday in Mexico. Day of the Dead runs from October 31st to All Souls Day, on November 2nd. Rituals honouring the dead date back several thousand years, all the way to the Aztecs. However, the current traditions mostly took shape during the 20th century.
They all originate from a belief that during the period, the souls of the dead come back to visit their loved ones.
How to celebrate like a Mexican:
In Mexico, families and communities construct altars decorated with flowers, skulls, tissue paper, food, drinks and pictures of departed loved ones. These altars may be within people’s homes or in communal places such as graveyards or town centres. They may also choose to visit graves of relatives and pay their respects.
Culinary highlights include sugar skulls, hot chocolate, pozole (stew made with pork, chilli, avocado, onion and lime) and Day of the Dead bread (“Pan de Muerto”). Pan de Muerto is a bun-shaped sweet bread, often with bone-shaped features. The other foods are chosen based on the preferences of the deceased, since the initial belief was that they would return to their house and eat from the altar. For this to happen, cempasúchil (a brightly coloured Mexican flower) petals are laid out to create a path from the entrance of the home all the way to the altar so the souls know where to go.
In different cities around the country a variety of events take place, such as commemorative parades and communal altars in the centre of towns. Mexico City, for example, has a hot chocolate and Pan de Muerto festival in the heart of Coyoacán. There’s also a giant Catrina (the name given to the female skull) parade in the main roads of the city.
Contrary to popular belief in some countries outside Mexico, Day of the Dead is a time of reflection as a celebration to honour loved ones, rather than partying or any Halloween-like traditions.
In 2017, the Disney Pixar film “Coco” went on to gross over $800m USD in cinemas worldwide. It told the story of a young boy who travels to the “Land of the Dead”, becoming immersed in the imagery, colours and sounds associated with the celebration. Day of the Dead outside Mexico is increasingly developing into a celebration of Mexican-ness as much as being about the rituals of the festival.
However, Day of the Dead is still of course one of Mexico's most beloved traditions and Mexicans are proud that it's acknowledged by the rest of the world!