Dia de los Muertos – or the Day of the Dead – is without a doubt Mexico’s most famous festival and has been celebrated in a big way for hundreds of years. You’ve probably seen photos of sugar skulls & face paint, but there’s a lot more to this cultural celebration than meets the eye.
Here are 6 things you might not know about Mexico’s Day of the Dead:
1. It’s not the same as Halloween
It’s a common misconception that the Day of the Dead and Halloween are one and the same, but they’re actually very, very different.
OK sure, they’re next-door neighbours in the calendar (Day of the Dead falls on the 1st and 2nd of November) and yes, they both involve fancy dress and treats, but unlike Halloween, Day of the Dead is not about fearing the dead, but celebrating them. Instead of ghoulish tricks and horror stories, Dia de los Muertos is a far more joyful occasion that sees death as a part of life. The festival is dedicated to honouring the dead and enticing them back into the world for a night.
2. Cemeteries come to life
Graveside vigils might not sound like much of a party, but they are an important and meaningful part of Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico.
After cleaning the graves of their loved ones during the day, by night, families lovingly decorate the site with brightly coloured marigold flowers, as well as candles, picture frames and a few cherished items that their late loved ones once enjoyed in life; from sweet treats and trinkets to books and board games.
Though melancholy by nature, graveside vigils can be an upbeat affair too. Families often gather in the panteón (cemetery) where they’ll sit throughout the night, sharing stories and sing-alongs. If you happen to visit a cemetery at this time, don’t be surprised to hear the sound of laughter and chatter in the air, where families huddle together, passing around bottles of mescal for the occasional glug and toast to the deceased.
For others, it can be a more sombre evening of solitude and peace. The important thing to remember if you visit any cemetery during the Day of the Dead in Mexico is to be respectful to those around you and not voyeuristic or intrusive. Speaking a little Spanish goes a long way and you’ll probably meet a good crowd who’ll be more than happy to share a few stories with you.
3. Gifts play a big role
To entice the dead back into the land of the living, families decorate altars – known as ofrendas – both publicly and in their own homes too. These eye-catching shrines are adorned with all kinds of meaningful tributes that are often made up of the things that the dead once loved in life. You’ll find photo frames and flowers, fizzy drink bottles (to quench their thirst after a long journey from the afterlife), sweet treats, cigarette boxes, paper-mache skeletons and colourful bunting (known as ‘papel picado’) which is usually draped from corner to corner.
Like the decorated graves, the sentiment behind these altars is to entice the dead to return to the living to enjoy the pleasures that they once loved in life.
4. ‘Bread of the dead’ is a real thing
Honouring the dead is hungry work. Is it any surprise that in a country as rich in culinary offerings as Mexico, food plays such a huge role in the Day of the Dead fiesta?
As well as leaving treats on ofrendas, another typical foodie custom during Day of the Dead is baking (and eating!) pan de muerto – bread of the dead. Pan de muerto is a typical sweet bread that’s often decorated in bones, skulls, crosses, and tears.
In Oaxaca, artisan bakers take Day of the Dead bread to a whole new level, and if you wander the main food market of Mercado Benito Juárez you’ll find rows upon rows of sweet loaves, baked with a carita, or little face, on the top.
5. There’s one famous skull in particular
Probably the most iconic emblem of Dia de Los Muertos is the skeleton or skull figure. You’ll often see this character dolled up in an over-the-top hat, dress, and feathers. Her name is La Catrina and she is the creation of 20th Century political cartoonist, Jose Guadelupe Posada. Posada sketched the figure as a reminder to the people that, underneath everything, we are all skeletons.
La Catrina has since become an iconic symbol of the festival and inspires many of the elegant costumes and face painting that you see in the parades and window displays across the country.
6. Marigold flowers aren’t just for decoration
We all know the tradition of leaving flowers on a grave, but during Mexico’s Day of the Dead, one particular flower serves a very important purpose. If you’re travelling in Mexico during Day of the Dead, you’re bound to see blankets of bright orange marigolds lining alters, cemeteries, shop fronts, churches, markets and more.
These flowers do more than brighten up the place. In fact, it is believed they are the pathways that guide the dead to their ofrendas. Known as “Flor de Muerto,” marigolds epitomize the preciousness and beauty of life.