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Day of the Dead Traditions
In the lead-up to the holiday, Mexican families begin the tradition of decorating their homes. The focal point of these decorations is the Ofrenda, also known as the Altar de Muertos. This display is a way to honor and remember loved ones who have passed away. The origins of this tradition can be traced back to the Aztecs, who used to place offerings for the dead, including food and flowers, on tree stumps during their days of remembrance.
The traditional Ofrenda is divided into different levels, each representing a specific stage of life and death. It can have two, three, or even seven levels. The decoration typically includes purple and orange, the traditional colors of the holiday. It is often adorned with papel picado, which is a beautiful Mexican paper craft featuring intricate cut-outs. These cut-outs depict Day of the Dead motifs like sugar skulls and dancing skeletons. Mexican oilcloths are commonly used to cover the surface of the Ofrenda.
To symbolize the purification of the soul, the Ofrenda is adorned with Copal, a special Mexican incense, and spices. Strongly scented flowers, such as marigolds, are also placed on the altar. It is believed that these flowers attract the souls of the deceased. Marigolds are often arranged in arches, symbolizing the gateway between the world of the living and the afterlife. Additionally, the Ofrenda may contain other elements like sugar skulls, crosses, candles to guide the soul, water to quench its thirst, photographs of the departed, and their precious belongings. Favorite foods of the deceased are also included as offerings.
Public Ofrendas are a common sight during the holiday season. Squares, parks, and university campuses are often adorned with large-scale, highly decorated altars. These altars are usually dedicated to artists, writers, and historical figures who played significant roles in Mexican culture. In some cases, they are designed as public memorials, like the 2017 Ofrendas in Mexico City Zocalo that honored the victims of the September 19th Earthquake.
It is customary for many people to visit the graves of their loved ones during the Day of the Dead holiday. Beforehand, families clean the graves and decorate them with marigolds and candles. Ofrendas are often placed right next to the graves. On the holiday itself, people bring offerings of food, drink, and precious objects to honor their departed family members. Toys and sweets are brought to the graves of children. The visits take place on November 1st for deceased children and on November 2nd for deceased adults.
Upon arriving at the graves, prayers are recited, often accompanied by candlelit processions. These processions vary from region to region. In Patzcuaro, Michoacán, for example, people arrive at the cemetery on decorated boats with candles lighting the way. Families often gather at the cemetery to share a holiday meal and drinks beside the graves of their loved ones. It is common for stories and anecdotes about the departed to be shared as families gather to eat.
In many cases, the celebrations continue throughout the day and night, with music and dancing. Brass bands, Mariachis, and other traditional Mexican musicians play songs for both the living and the dead. Visitors often request songs that were beloved by their departed loved ones and offer money in exchange.
Food plays a significant role in Day of the Dead celebrations, as meals shared with family, both at home and in the cemetery, are an essential part of the tradition. The specific dishes served may vary by region, but some favorites include Mexican staples like Tamales, maize dumplings wrapped in corn or palm leaves, and atole, a sweet maize-based beverage.
Another popular dish across the country is the traditional Pan de Muertos, a sweet bread baked to resemble a pile of bones. The bone decorations at the top of the bread are arranged in the shape of a cross, symbolizing the four paths of the universe in Pre-Columbian mythology.
Different regions have their own unique dishes. In the Yucatan peninsula, the main course is pib, also known as mucbilpollo. This Mayan dish resembles a tamal but is much larger and cooked in a special underground oven. It is typically filled with chicken or pork and various spices. The preparation method is highly symbolic, resembling the process of burial.
In Oaxaca, chicken or pork prepared in yellow mole sauce is commonly consumed. In many parts of Puebla, meals are seasoned with zompantle, a flower that grows during the season and is strongly associated with Day of the Dead. Tamales prepared with ash to symbolize death are also popular.
Costumes and Festivals
In recent years, dressing up in costumes associated with the holiday has become a trend, likely influenced by the popularity of Halloween. Women often choose costumes inspired by La Catrina, a character created by Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada, who has become the most recognizable symbol of death. Many people also paint their faces like skeletons or sugar skulls for the celebration.
Costumes are often worn to public Day of the Dead celebrations. These can include parades, festivals, or street parties. These celebrations have become a significant part of the holiday season in large Mexican cities and attract many visitors. Examples of these events include the annual parade in Mexico City and the Calaveras Festival in San Luis Potosí, which pays homage to Posada’s cartoons.