While “Day of the Dead” (Dia de Los Muertos) sounds like the name of a horror movie, this holiday is totally the opposite of what you might have imagined. The holiday is actually for honoring dead relatives and the tradition dates back 1000s of years.
For two days, each year, it is believed that the dead return to Earth and join the living for feasts and celebrations. On November 1st, Dia de Los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) is held, in which deceased children and infants are honored. This day is also referred to as Dia de Los Angelitos (“Day of the Little Angels”). And then, on November 2nd, deceased adults are honored.
In homes throughout Mexico, people build altars for their dead relatives. Photos of the departed are placed on the the altars, along with candies and other treats, as well as the favorite foods and beverages of of the departed. Skull-shaped candies are commonly used on altars, as offerings to the dead. Marigolds, known as Flowers of the Dead, are placed on the altars too. The flowers are thought to attract souls and to help guide the spirits back home.
In addition to building altars in homes, cemeteries are cleaned in preparation for the holiday, and then families decorate the graves of their deceased loved ones. Bottles of tequilas are a very popular offering to leave on the graves of adults and toys are often left on the graves of children. Pan de Muerte, bread with a cross formed on the top, is another common offering. People also leave out pillows and blankets so their loved ones can rest after their long “journey” and, in some parts of Mexico, families have picnics in cemeteries, or have all-night, graveside, celebrations.
Since the celebration is such an important part of Mexican heritage, schools and government offices usually set up altars as well, but they leave out any religious symbols.
So, even though skulls are usually associated with the holiday and the name can lead people to believe Day of the Dead is a holiday that is similar to Halloween, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s actually a lovely tradition that celebrates family, friends, and the circle of life by honoring dear, departed relatives.
In Cancun, most of the festivities take place in private homes, or cemeteries, but in other parts of Mexico, like Oaxaca, there are big parades and festivals to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos. Visitors to Cancun can learn more about Day of the Dead traditions by attending Xcaret’s 5th annual Festival of Life and Death. The festival will be held October 30th-November 2nd, 2010.