Hola, amigos! Here in Mexico, it’s time to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Perhaps this sounds scary to you, but it’s really a very family-friendly holiday. Would you like to know what all the fuss is about? Keep reading!
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The Day of the Dead is one of the biggest holidays in Mexico, second only to Christmas. It’s big enough to get a couple of days off from work and school!
It’s also so unique that it has been included in UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. What makes it so captivating is the mix of indigenous and European traditions, which is precisely the very essence of Mexico.
How To Celebrate The Mexican Day Of The Dead
The Day of the Dead is a Celebration of Life
Contrary to popular belief, the Day of the Dead is not a celebration of death, but of life.
Tradition says that during this holiday, the dead are given permission to visit the living and stay in this world for a little while. That’s why it’s such a big deal.
Imagine that all your long-lost friends and relatives were coming over for dinner. Wouldn’t that be a reason to celebrate? That’s the pretty much the idea! It’s a celebration of life together.
The Day of the Dead is a Mix of Cultures
People outside of Mexico often think this holiday is creepy, but that’s because they don’t understand what it’s about.
The roots of the Day of the Dead go back to ancient times. It goes back long before Europeans arrived in the Americas.
The ancient Aztecs had a festival to honor their dead and the god of the Afterlife. They believed that death was not the end, but the beginning of another life in the Afterworld.
The Aztecs also believed the deceased could journey back to earth during this holiday, so they honored their ancestors with offerings of food and drink.
When the Christian missionaries arrived, they changed the ancient Aztec festival and got the people to celebrate the feast of All Saints’ Day instead.
But the ancient festival didn’t die out, and eventually these two festivities merged together. That’s how we got the modern-day Day of the Dead festival, with candy skulls, colorful skeletons, and images of crosses and saints.
The Day of the Dead is Several Days Long
The Day of the Dead actually lasts for several days, depending on who you are honoring.
The Aztecs believed the afterlife was determined by how people died, not by how they lived. For example, the people who drowned had their own particular Afterworld, and so did the children who died in infancy, the women who died in childbirth, the warriors who died in battle, and so on.
Probably, the ancient festival had special days to honor them all. And now, the modern-day festival also goes by similar rules.
According to tradition, the souls of the people who died a violent death arrive on October 28th and 29th. The following days, October 30th and 31st, are reserved for stillborn babies or for those who died in infancy. November 1st is the special day to welcome the souls of children. And finally, all the rest of the dead arrive to visit on November 2nd, which is known as the Day of the Dead.
Families whose loved ones fall into one of those categories set up altars for them on those specific days. This would be the most traditional way to do it.
Day of the Dead Altars and Offerings
Setting up an altar offering is the most important part of the holiday.
Many people set up altars in their homes or workplace. There are altars in schools, businesses, offices, and markets. Sometimes, the altars take up an entire room, or sometimes just a small corner. Other people set up the altar at the grave of their loved ones. It all depends on how people would rather do it.
There are several requirements to setting up a proper altar and offering. Pay special attention to this! You should include the following things:
1. A glass of water- This is to quench the thirst of the Dead after their long journey back to earth. Some people also include a wash basin and towels.
2. Salt- This purifies the souls of the Dead on their way in and out of the Afterworld.
3. Candles- This is to light the way of the Dead back to their earthly homes.
4. Tablecloth- If you are setting up the altar on a table, use a tablecloth so the Dead can dine on it.
5. Dead Bread- This is a special kind of bread that is only baked for this holiday. It is round, with a dough ball in the center and four long stem decorations. Some say the ball represents a skull and the stems represent bones or tears. Another explanation is that the ball represents the center of the universe and the stems are the four cardinal directions, which were all sacred to the Aztecs.
There are many kinds of Dead Bread! Some are round, others are shaped like people or animals. They can be decorated with sugar, sesame seeds, amaranth, or chocolate. Dead Bread is one of the highlights of this holiday, and I don’t know anyone that doesn’t look forward to having a piece!
6. Food and drink- If you’re having people for dinner, you have to cook something festive and delicious, right? Usually, families make mole sauce, tamales, sweet pumpkin, or any other dish that their loved ones used to like. It’s also common to include little glasses of tequila and even beer in the offerings.
7. Incense- Copal incense is burned at the altars with the offerings to cleanse and purify the place where the souls of the Dead are to arrive.
8. Cut paper banners and marigolds- These flowers only bloom after the rainy season is over, so they obviously became the decoration of choice for the Day of the Dead. Some people even fashion a path made of marigold petals from their front gate all the way to the altar. It looks amazing! Cut tissue paper is also used to decorate altars. Keep in mind that it’s best if the color scheme is mainly orange and purple, the colors of life and mourning.
9. Pictures of the deceased- This is to let them know that you are expecting them and that you have not forgotten them.
10. Skulls- These are a reminder of the nature of this holiday. They can be candy skulls or chocolate skulls. Sometimes, people even give candy skulls as gifts! You could also use ceramic skulls to decorate. Some people also include figures of xoloitzcuintle dogs. These were believed to be guides for the Dead on their journey to and from the Afterworld. But why are skulls painted so colorful? Because this is Mexico, I guess!
11. A cross and an image of a saint or virgin- Because we should keep in mind that this is also a Christian feast day. Sort of. Right?
The Day of the Dead as a Family Holiday
Some families in Mexico go to the cemetery on the evening of November 1st, they set up the altar and the offering, and spend all night on a vigil. They may even hire a band of mariachis to play music at their loved one’s grave. Other families stay home, but they keep vigil at the altar and say prayers.
This is a special time to be with family. Families gather to bake Dead Bread together, they set up the altar and the offering together, they keep vigil together and then eat together. They welcome their loved ones together.
If you’re going to set up an altar, you should do that at least the day before, on November 1st. Set it up, and light the candles with the rest of the family. Spend some time together, because you’ll be having long-lost relatives over to visit, remember?
Tell your kids about their great-uncle, or their grandfather, or their auntie who died before they were born. Show them pictures. Children will get to learn about their roots.
On the evening of November 2nd, the spirits will be gone and you can eat all the bread, tamales, and candy skulls from the offering. This is a day to say good-bye to the souls of the Dead before they embark on their journey back to the Afterworld.
On November 2nd, you’ll have to say good-bye to your loved ones, but don’t be sad. Remember that they’ll be back again next year to visit you again. They’ll be sure to return because they love you as much as you love them.