Mexican culture is colorful, lively and very unique. It doesn’t matter how grim or sad a holiday may seem, Mexicans will find a way of making it come to life– literally and metaphorically – in ways only their imagination allows. Day of the Dead is no exception to this, as the holiday is celebrated throughout the country. Although it sounds as if it should be a day of sadness, it is in fact a joyous day. It´s filled with music, food, friends, family, and remembering those who have gone.
A lot of time is invested in this November holiday as it features elaborate make up of catrinas, setting up altars, baking delicious meals, decorating with cempasuchil flowers, and dressing up the graves at the cemeteries, The holiday is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, the first being dedicated to remembering children and infants and the latter for honoring the deceased adults. However, with the integration of Halloween the celebrations tend to start a few days earlier in certain parts of the country.
The holiday is meant for those who have gone, so there is no indulging in what you like but rather in what they enjoyed. Altars are set up with a photo of the deceased person and decorated with cempasuchil flowers, while the deceased’s favorite food and drinks are placed on it as an offering. It is believed that on this day the dead come back to the world of the living to spend time with their loved ones. For this reason, all of their favorite things are placed on the altar to welcome them back.
Graveyards are a special place during this time of year, but visits to the graves are not as you would imagine. Instead, you will find families gathering around the tombs of their loved ones with flowers, offerings and even picnics. Throughout the night they will share their favorite stories of the person they are honoring and remember them. Mariachis are often found roaming throughout the graves singing the deceased’s favorite songs and bringing the cemeteries – quite literally- to life.
Of course, with every holiday comes tales and legends, and this is also the case with the Day of the Dead. Some believe that not creating an altar for a deceased family member can have deathly consequences. According to legend, or as it is known in Spanish las malas lenguas, if a spirit comes back to see it has been forgotten they can be angered. This is especially true if they see the big and elaborate altars left for other spirits. Those who forget it will be struck with illness and maybe even become dead soon after. Some people celebrate the holiday out of fear rather than tradition, love and commitment. But hey, these are just stories.
And let’s not forget about food! Day of the Dead is full of some delicious treats such as pan de muerto and sugar skulls. It is tradition to buy sugar skulls with the name of a person and offer it as a gift to friends and family members. These skulls are usually decorated with catrina-like make up and have a sticker on the forehead with a name. The sugar skull is given as a gift. This is not to mean that you are suggesting death to the person you give it to, but rather as a statement of love. It says that if they were ever to be gone you would remember them on this day.
The other traditional food is the pan de muerto, which is a bun with decorations that resemble bones on top. It is a traditional sweet roll baked throughout the country and shared by family members by the grave or at home.
Throughout the country you will find parades, parties, festivities and many things to celebrate this amazing tradition that has been around for centuries. Foreigners are welcomed with open arms to join the celebrations as Mexican culture dictates that teaching and sharing traditions with outsiders is good. Ask around your community and join the many events throughout. There is often theater, music, parks, pub-crawls and more.
Now you know how this beautiful tradition is celebrated and what to expect, so get out there and be a part of it. Nobody says that only Mexican souls come back. Erect an altar for your loved ones who have gone and they will surely appreciate it.
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