Day of the Dead Traditions
In the weeks leading up to the holiday, Mexican families will begin to decorate their homes for the holiday. The centerpiece will be the Ofrenda, or Altar de Muertos, a display meant to commemorate the lives of loved ones. This tradition can be traced back to the Aztecs, who would place offerings for the dead, including food and flowers, on tree stumps on their days of remembrance.
The traditional Ofrenda is divided into various levels to represent the various stages of life and death. There can be two levels, representing heaven and Earth, three levels, representing heaven, Earth, and the underworld, or seven levels, representing the seven stages souls have to cross to reach eternal rest. It is decorated with purple and orange, the traditional colors of the holiday, and often adorned with papel picado, a popular Mexican paper craft that is made up of ornate cut-outs. The papel picado used for the holiday will feature specific images and motifs associated with Day of the Dead, such as sugar skulls and dancing skeletons. Traditional Mexican oilcloths are commonly used to drape the surface of the Ofrenda.
Copal, a special Mexican incense, and spices are placed on the Ofrenda to symbolize the purification of the soul, as well as strong-flavored flowers such as marigolds, which are believed to attract the souls of the dead. These flowers are often placed as arches, which symbolize the gate between the world of the living and the afterlife. On top of the altar, it is customary to place other elements as well, such as sugar skulls, crosses, candles to guide the soul, and water to quench its thirst. Photographs and precious objects belonging to the deceased are also placed on the Ofrenda, as well as foods the person enjoyed in life.
Ofrendas in public places are also a common sight during the holiday season. Squares, parks, and university campuses will often be covered in different large-scale, highly decorated altars, which are usually dedicated to artists, writers, and historical figures important in Mexican culture. In other cases, they take on the form of public memorials, such as the 2017 ofrendas in the Mexico City Zocalo which were designed to honor the victims of the September 19th Earthquake.
It is customary for many to visit the graves of loved ones during the holiday and to celebrate Day of the Dead in the cemetery. Beforehand, family members clean the graves of their deceased. They decorate the graves with marigolds and candles, often placing Ofrendas right next to them. Then, on the holiday, people bring offerings of food and drink to honor their loved ones, as well as precious objects belonging to them. In the case of children, toys and sweets will be brought to their graves. The visits take place on November 1st, for those who passed away as children, and on November 2nd, for those who died as adults.
Prayers are recited upon arriving at the graves, and are often preceded by candlelit processions. These vary from region to region. In the town of Patzcuaro, Michoacán, for instance, people will arrive at the cemetery on decorated boats with candles to light the way. It is also not uncommon for families to share a holiday meal and drinks at the cemetery beside the graves of the deceased. Often, stories and anecdotes about loved ones will be shared as families gather to eat.
In many cases, celebrations go all day and all night, with music and dancing. Brass bands, Mariachis, and other traditional Mexican musicians will line the cemeteries playing songs for both the living and the dead, and visitors will often request songs beloved by their departed in exchange for some money.
In Day of the Dead, as in many Mexican celebrations, food plays an important role, as meals shared with family, both at home and in the cemetery are an important tradition. The food served will often vary by region, but favorites include Mexican staples such as Tamales, maize dumplings wrapped in corn or palm leaves, and atole, a sweet maize-based beverage.
Another dish which is popular across the country is the traditional Pan de Muertos, a sweet bread that is baked to resemble a pile of bones. The bone decorations at the top of the bread are placed in the shape of a cross and are meant to symbolize the four paths of the universe in Pre-Columbian mythology.
Other dishes are specific to different regions. In the Yucatan peninsula, the main course is pib, also known as mucbilpollo. This traditional Mayan dish resembles a tamal, but is much larger in size, and is cooked inside a special oven that lays underground. It is commonly filled with chicken or pork and contains spices. The preparation method is strongly symbolic, as it resembles the process of burial.
Oaxacans, on the other hand, will typically consume chicken or pork prepared in yellow mole sauce, while in many parts of Puebla, meals will be seasoned with zompantle, a flower that grows during the season and is strongly associated with Day of the Dead, and tamales will be prepared with ash to symbolize death.
Costumes and Festivals
A more recent tradition, likely influenced by the popularity of Halloween, includes dressing up in costumes associated with the holiday. A popular costume for women is La Catrina, a character created by Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada that has come to be the most popular symbol for death itself. People will also paint their faces like skeletons or sugar skulls for the celebration.
Costumes will often be worn to a public Day of the Dead Celebration, whether it be a parade, a festival, or a street party. These celebrations have become a big part of the holiday season in large Mexican cities and draw many visitors. Some of them include the parade in Mexico City that has been running for the past three years, as well as the Calaveras Festival in San Luis Potosí, which is an homage to Posada’s cartoons.