Though it has entered our mainstream lexicon a bit more these days, Day of the Dead, or "Dia de los Muertos," is a Mexican cultural tradition that is as much a celebration of life as it is a remembrance of those who have passed on. But to many of us, the day is still shrouded in a bit of mystery. Is it simply Mexico's version of Halloween? Is it a scary event, or is it appropriate for the whole family? Will it have an impact on me and my traveling companions if we're not aware of the cultural implications of this important day? These, and other pertinent questions, are important to ponder before witnessing this cultural phenomenon. Let's learn a bit more about Dia de los Muertos!
WHEN IS DIA DE LOS MUERTOS?
Traditional makeup seen during Day of the Dead celebrations
The Day of the Dead holiday is celebrated across Southern and Central Mexico from October 31st until November 2nd. Though this coincides with Halloween, the two are quite unrelated. Revelers believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on the last day of October each year, when the spirits of all deceased children are allowed to reconnect with their families for a full 24 hours. Then, the adult spirits are "invited" to rejoin their families on November 2nd. This three day celebration is enjoyed by reverent spectators and locals each year.
WHAT DOES IT CELEBRATE?
Big figures representing skeletons as part of the festivities
Throughout the Catholic world, some form of Dia de los Muertos is recognized. Italy, the Philippines, Spain, much of South America, and other primarily Catholic nations celebrate "All Souls Day" or "All Saints Day" as a way to honor and remember those who have passed away. Special church masses and ceremonies take place during this time, as well as decorating the tombs and gravesites of deceased family members. What makes Mexico such an exceptional place to witness Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is the elaborate decorations and vibrant celebrations that only take place in this part of the world.
WHAT CAN I EXPECT TO SEE DURING THE HOLIDAY?
Pan de Muerto sweet bread enjoyed during Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico
Visitors to Mexico during Dia de los Muertos will see colorful decorations honoring the dead. They'll also hear lively music and have access to incredible food. In many Mexican Indian villages, elaborate altars are constructed (called "ofrendas") in each home. They are lovingly decorated with local wildflowers, candles, fruit, food items, and special bread called "pan de muerto" that is made just for this holiday. These altars will be filled with toys to excite the spirits of young souls, as well as food and drinks for the adult "visitors." On November 2nd, family members will place cigarettes and shots of mescal on the altars as offerings to the adult spirits.
Elaborate Mexican altar, known as "ofrendas" for Day of the dead
The Day of the Dead is a truly unique holiday that can provide a fascinating glimpse into how other cultures think about and celebrate those who have passed. Though the holiday appears, on the surface, to be a joyous and cheerful event (Day of the Dead moniker, notwithstanding), it is but one example of the ways in which Mexicans celebrate and honor their deceased loved ones.
Day of the Dead feels like a party, but it is better described as a celebratory festival that elegantly demonstrates each family's commitment to the memories of those who have passed away. Visit Mexico during Dia de los Muertos and witness this rich holiday firsthand - you'll enjoy an experience you won't easily forget.