Day of the Dead takes place on 1 and 2 November every year in Central and Southern Mexico, and one year I was lucky enough to be there to enjoy the festivities and lear more about the tradition. Day of the Dead coincides with the Catholic holiday, All Soul’s & All Saint’s Day, and the indigenous peoples of Mexico have combined this with their own ancient beliefs of honouring their deceased loved ones.
It is believed that the gates of Heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (called angelitos – little angels) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them by their families.
In many indigenous villages, beautiful altars (ofrendas) are created in each home. They are decorated with candles, flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil & bright red cockscombs) fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, tortillas and big Day of the Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar has to have lots of food, bottles of pop, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and sweets are left for the angelitos, and on 2 November, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Small folk-art skeletons and sugar skulls provide the final decoration.
Sugar skulls are often placed on the altars and are sold absolutely everywhere in Central and Southern Mexico in the run up to Day of the Dead. Each one represents a departed soul and they often have the name of the deceased person written on their foreheads. They are placed either on the altar or gravestone to honour the return of a particular person’s spirit.
People also visit the graves of their deceased family and friends and place offerings and flowers on them – often spending hours there in vigil. One of the best places to witness this is at the cemetery in Janitzio, Michoacan where hundreds of people spend the night watching over loved ones, eating and drinking by their graves. An open-air mass usually takes place in the cemetery during the evening.
Whilst this may all seem a slightly morbid ritual to outsiders, it is not actually a time of sadness, but a celebration of the lives of the deceased and a time to remember them.