The Day of the Dead in Mexico, known as 'Dia de los Muertos', is an annual celebration dedicated to honoring our departed loved ones, including family members, friends, and even pets.
This vibrant tradition has deep historical roots, blending aspects of the Spanish Day of All Saints with the beliefs of the Mexicas, an indigenous group in Mexico.
When Does It Take Place?
Festivities of the Day of the Dead typically span from the end of October to the 1st week of November, culminating on two significant days:
November 1st – dedicated to children and babies who passed away
November 2nd - dedicated to the memory of deceased adults
How is it celebrated?
In recent years, thanks to the global spotlight brought by the James Bond movie "007 Spectre" (2015) and Pixar's "Coco," the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico have garnered increased attention.
Festivities include grand parades and the creation of altars or 'Ofrendas' in homes and public spaces like museums, schools, and government offices.
One notable event is the Great Parade of the Day of the Dead, which occurs in Mexico City at the end of October.
This magnificent parade commences near the Lions Gate and winds its way through downtown Mexico City. It features a splendid display of dancers, carriages, music, acrobats, and catrinas (elegant skeleton figures) — a must-see for locals and tourists alike.
What is the significance of the Altars or Ofrendas?
The word "altar" traces its roots to the Latin term 'altarium,' meaning 'high.' Traditionally, altars were elevated platforms for worshiping deities. In the context of the Day of the Dead, altars are constructed to pay tribute to the lives of the departed.
Setting up these altars or ofrendas is one of the most cherished traditions during this celebration, symbolizing the reunion between the living and the deceased.
What are the main traditional elements of the Day of the Dead Altar and their meaning?
All the elements that form part of an altar have a symbolic meaning. Altars or ofrendas can vary from region to region in Mexico. However, some of the main elements in all altars are:
- Candles: Lit to guide the souls of the departed to the altar.
- Marigolds: Their bright yellow-orange color make the altar look bright and colorful. Yet, marigolds symbolize death. Their strong fragrance help lead the dead to the altars.
- Incense: Used for purification and to attract the spirits back to the altar with its scent.
- Photo of the deceased: A cherished image of the departed, including pets, is prominently placed on the altar.
- Day of the Dead Bread: It’s a typical bread eaten from the beginning of October until the beginning of November. This bread represents the departed.
- Sugar skulls: They represent Death and the afterlife. They can be given as a gift to the living during the Day of the Dead and also as offerings in the altar.
- Salt. Used to purify the souls of the dead, ensuring their return in the following year.
- Water. Offered to quench the thirst of the returning spirits.
- Papel Picado: Decorative paper cutouts that, when swaying in the wind, symbolize the arrival of the deceased.
- Food, Drinks, and personal belongings that the deceased person used to like: It can be anything from their favourite cigar, tequila, mezcal, their favourite meal, etc.
One of my favourite dishes are Mexican refried beans, so I hope that when I pass away, my family members will put some on the altar.
How to build a Day of the Dead altar?
Mexican or not Mexican, anyone can set up an altar. Here’s a quick guide on how to set it up:
- Select a Space. Chose a space that isn’t going to be in others’ way and get easily knocked over.
- Table. A dedicated table is ideal. For a more traditional setup, consider using at least two tiers — the upper representing heaven and the lower, earth. You can achieve this by stacking cardboard boxes on the table. Cover the table and boxes with a colorful tablecloth and papel picado.
- Marigolds. Arrange marigolds around the altar and place some on it for added vibrancy.
- Candles and incense. Scatter them in the altar to lead the souls back to it.
- Sugar skulls. They not only add a pop of colour, but also represent Death.
- Favourite Food, drinks and personal belongings of the dead. One of my mom’s favourite drink was Coca-Cola so I know I will be placing one on my altar.
- Photos: Position photos of those you are honoring at a central spot on the altar.
I hope that you will enjoy this celebration of the Day of Dead as much as we do in Mexico. As depicted in the Pixar film "Coco," our beloved ones are only truly gone when we forget them, so let's continue to cherish and honor this rich tradition.