In several pre-Hispanic cultures, life and death were not considered direct opposites. Instead, there was a belief in duality, that one could not be defined or understood without the existence of the other. Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) reflects those pre-Hispanic influences, even today, in its remembrance of the dead and its colorful celebration of life – like two sides of the same coin.
That said, as an outsider learning to appreciate the significance of this holiday, I’ve been surprised a few times by the difference in how Mexicans and Americans think about death. The other day, my host mom, Mónica, told me I should get some clay skulls from the market and take them home for my parents so they would have something from Day of the Dead – and for an extra touch, I should paint the skulls with their names.
She suggested this with such enthusiasm, I didn’t want to crush her by explaining that in the U.S., giving my parents skulls decorated with their names would come across more like a subtle death threat than as a thoughtful souvenir. I told her I might just send them some pictures instead.
Click on the photos to learn about Day of the Dead traditions!
Ofrendas, altars built as offerings to the dead, are a central tradition of Day of the Dead.
Altars incorporate many symbols, in particular, the four elements. Orange marigolds, grown from the soil, represent the earth; candles and burning incense represent fire; papel picado (cut paper with designs of skeletons, often doing funny things like riding bicycles) wave in the wind; and bowls of water provide literal representation of the liquid.
Photos of the deceased, as well as their favorite foods and other earthly things they enjoyed in life – maybe a bottle of mescal or a pack of cigarettes, adorn the altar. Orange marigolds are arranged in pathways to the altars so the dead can find their way home to the offerings left for them, as the old idea is that the dead come back and visit their families the night preceding the Day of the Dead.
The tapete, an elaborate mosaic, is an essential part of the ofrenda.
Tapetes are made by arranging dried beans, salt, sawdust (sometimes dyed brilliant colors), and marigolds on the ground.
Tapetes usually incorporate skulls or skeletons, sometimes in festive scenes associated with life, like dancing or drinking alcohol.
Altars are usually more personal, as they’re dedicated to loved ones who have passed away, but these giant tapetes are purely for public enjoyment and appreciation.
Some public altars are dedicated to deceased celebrities or cultural figures. In Guanajuato, the birthplace of Diego Rivera, there’s a good chance you’ll see an altar dedicated to the famous muralist and his wife Frida Kahlo.
In the streets and markets during the week leading up to Day of the Dead, booths sell miniature figurines made of sugar paste – some relate to the holiday, like miniature Grim Reapers, or are totally unrelated, like petite Tweety Birds. There are also tiny plates of traditional dishes, like q-tip sized enchiladas. These decorations are fun to look at, but basically inedible.
These fruit-shaped candies, while intended for eating, are almost too pretty to bite into. Curiosity got the better of me though, so I can tell you that they’re overwhelmingly sugary and taste something like candy corn.
Pan de muerto, or Bread of the Dead, is a symbolic food sold only for Day of the Dead. The round blob on the top of each roll represents a skull and the four tubular blobs are supposed to be bones, which also represent the four cardinal directions and the four elements. It tastes like chewy Wonderbread, and for extra culinary sophistication, includes a topping of granulated sugar that will crumble all over your shirt.
Some families go to the panteones (cemeteries of tombs) on the night of November 1st, leaving flowers and offerings at the graves of loved ones.