How to Celebrate Dia de los Muertos Even When You’re Not in Mexico

by Shelli

Do you ever consider timing your visit to a country based on its holidays? Many people enjoy Europe during the Christmas markets season, or pick a special place to spend New Year’s Eve based on spectacular fireworks displays. If you’ve never traveled to Mexico during early November to experience Dia de Los Muertos, add this to your bucket list. Don’t keep a bucket list? Start one with Mexico for Day of the Dead. Why? Glad you asked!

What is The Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos)

The Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos), is a multi-day Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion. The reunion includes food, drink and celebration. It is commonly portrayed as a day of celebration rather than mourning. Día de los Muertos is a celebration of both life and death.

Origins of the holiday have been traced back thousands of years to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl. While the holiday originated in Mexico, it is celebrated all over Latin America. The holiday occurs in connection with the Catholic holidays that fall on November 1 and 2, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. You may also hear this holiday referred to as the “cult of the dead”.

How is The Day of the Dead Celebrated?

Think of Day of the Dead like a family reunion—except dead ancestors are the guests of honor! It is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun.

On this day, it is believed that the souls of the dead return to visit their living family members. Many people celebrate this day by visiting the graves of deceased loved ones. Families set up altars with the favorite foods, drink, and photos of their loved ones. These offerings are called ofrendas. The altars are decorated with bright yellow marigolds. Marigolds are also used to decorate the insides and outsides of places of businesses and homes.

Here’s a wonderful video about building a Day of the Dead alter.

It’s a colorful holiday and filled with joy. You’ll find colorful calaveras (skulls) images and calacas (skeletons) used as symbols. True, the theme is death, but its purpose is to show love and respect for deceased family members.

The days involve makeup and costumes, parades and parties, singing and dancing, and as mentioned above, offerings to lost loved ones. The more I spoke with friends in Mexico, the deeper grew my understanding that Dia de Los Muertos involves traditions passed down from generation to generation.

Food of the Dead

The traditional Day of the Dead belief is that while traveling from the spirit world to the realm of the living, ancestors get hungry and thirsty. So why not make some of the offerings food?

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), often flavored with anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolize sorrow.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, the living get to eat pan de muerto as well! The bakeries in Mexico will start turning out their pan de muerto at least a week before the holiday. The bread is yummy and even better when dunked in hot cocoa or coffee!

Sugar skulls are part of a sugar art tradition brought to Mexico by 17th-century Italian missionaries. Pressed in molds and decorated with a variety of colors, the sugar skull candies in all sizes.

What is Papel Picado?

One of my favorite sites during Day of the Dead festivities is papel picado. It’s one of the most colorful magical things that happens during Dia de Los Muertos. Many of the streets, places of business, and homes are decorated with papel picado. You may have seen this Mexican paper craft in Mexican restaurants.

The literal translation, pierced paper, describes how it’s made. Colored tissue paper is stacked in dozens of layers and then perforated with hammer and chisel points. Papel picado isn’t used exclusively during Day of the Dead, but it plays an important role in the holiday.

This art form represents the wind and the fragility of life. It’s just magical to see towns and cities come to life with papel picado. One morning you leave your residence, walk out onto the street, and caramba, it comes alive with colors and papel picado strung from one side of the street to the other.

Final Thoughts

Though Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico, styles and customs differ by region, depending on the region’s predominant pre-Hispanic culture. I hope you’ve enjoyed the videos and come to the same conclusion that many others have: visiting Mexico in early November during Dia de Los Muertos is a festive and meaningful time of year to appreciate Mexican traditions. Have you ever participated in Dia de los Muertos? Share your experiences!

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