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A Journey Into Paradise

Mexico’s Colorful Day of the Dead Traditions

31 October, 2013

Each year during what the U.S. calls Halloween,people throughout Mexico take time to celebrate Day of the Dead,or Dia de los Muertos,from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2. This is a special time to remember and honor loved ones who have been lost and is characterized by a variety of colorful rituals and joyous celebrations.

“Dia de los Muertos includes customs such as decorating tombstones and graves with altars using items like candles,photographs,flowers,and embroidered tablecloths where the favorite foods of the deceased are placed,” writes the Vancouver Sun. “Kids play with skeleton toys and witch dolls,and ask neighbors and friends for skull-shaped candies and pastries. At the gravesites,there might be mariachi bands performing,while families have picnics and socialize.”

Although comparisons to Halloween in the U.S. are inevitable given the timing of Day of the Dead,in reality the significance of the holiday in Mexico is much different,containing many layers and unique cultural traditions. For example,families typically make altars on or before Oct. 31 to use during the celebrations on Nov 1-2. The altars,known as ofrendas, are a real labor of love and are used to hold special offerings such as Day of the Dead Bread,which is adorned with strips of dough to resemble bones and teardrops. Another popular offering includes orange marigolds,known as cempasuchil flowers,which were also used by the ancient Aztecs to remember their dead.

Also,unlike Halloween in the U.S.,Day of the Dead in Mexico actually lasts several days,with Nov. 1 dedicated to honoring children and infants,while Nov. 2 is reserved for adults. For this reason,Nov. 1 is also typically referred to as Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels).

Santa Muerte

This Mexican folk figure,which translates to “Saint Death,” takes the form of a female skeleton that is often symbolized in the form of a candle,medallion or statue. Resembling the Grim Reaper,Santa Muerte is typically seen holding a scythe and wearing a long shroud. She is considered capable of working great miracles and unlike traditional Catholic saints she is considered by devotees to be a personification of death itself,not the embodied eternal soul of a deceased person.

La Calavera Catrina

Ever since her creation in the early 1900s by famed Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada,La Calavera Catrina – which translates loosely to mean “Elegant Skull” or “Dapper Skeleton” – is known as the grand lady of death in Mexico and her image almost always plays a central role in annual Day of the Dead celebrations. By the mid-1900’s,internationally acclaimed muralist Diego Riviera also used the image of La Calavera Catrina in his work,thereby cementing her in the hearts and minds of Mexican national identity. Symbolic of the continuation of life’s cyclical nature,today she has become an important image for Mexico’s cultural heritage and an icon in Day of the Dead celebrations throughout the country.

As one of the most popular and anticipated holidays in Mexico,Day of the Dead can be traced back to the ancient Aztecs and Mayans,who also held various celebrations at this time of year. After the Europeans landed,these traditions were eventually somewhat merged with Catholic theology,but the continued use of skulls,special meals and ceremonies in Mexico hearkens back to the original meaning of this important holiday.

“In the Mayan language,the celebrations are called Hanal Pixan,which means ‘feast for the souls,” writes the Vancouver Sun. “Maya families gather to prepare a special seasoned chicken tamale wrapped in banana leaves (called pibi pollo or muk-bil),cooked in an underground pit.” 

Visitors planning a trip to Mexico during its annual Day of the Dead celebrations will enjoy a heightened sense of culture and excitement during their stay and the overall experience can be even further enhanced by taking part in some of the many special tours and festivals that take place during this time of year throughout the country.

To experience this unique cultural tradition,consider checking out Day of the Dead at Xcaret,which is held each year from Oct 30-Nov 2. Xcaret is a premier eco-archaeological park in the Riviera Maya that offers a variety of exciting activities all year,including special offerings for Dia de los Muertos. 

Have you ever been to a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration? Tell us what you thought!