Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is a two-day celebration throughout Mexico on November 1st and 2nd of each year that reunites the living and the dead. Typically, the 1st is a celebration of the children and the 2nd for the adults. It is a holiday for honoring the life of loved ones who are no longer with us.
The roots of Día de los Muertos can be traced back to approximately 3,000 years to the indigenous peoples of the Pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica including the Olmecs, Aztecs, Maya and Toltec peoples. San Miguel is located in the area of northern Mesoamerica. When the Spaniards came to Mexico and introduced Catholicism to the indigenous people, the traditions became blended. Today Día de los Muertos shares a spot on the calendar with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which also traditionally take place on Nov. 1 and 2. On these two days, Catholics honor deceased Catholic saints and the souls of departed loved ones.
It is known for its beautiful and elaborate ofrendas or altars that are installed in homes and businesses leading up to the date, that honors the departed family members. They play a vital role in the celebration. A typical ofrenda has calaveras or sugar skulls, colorful papel picado or perforated paper banners, photos of those who have died, candles to illuminate the way for the soul, cempasúchil or marigold flowers, alcoholic beverages like tequila or mezcal plus pan de muerto or bread for the dead. It is also a tradition to leave salt and water to purify their soul and quench their thirst as they return. Toys can also be included on altars for children. Incense is also sometimes burned.
The tradition is that these altars help the spirits find their way back to the land of the living. They are created to honor those who may be gone but will live forever in their hearts, memories and stories.
Often people prepare the favorite foods of those who have died. These include mole, tamales, pozole, and sopa azteca and are prepared by families with the recipes being passed on from generation to generation.
In the local cemeteries there are also ofrendas along with the decorated graves. I always enjoy going to the Cemetery or Panteón de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, just south of downtown at Cam. Viejo Al Panteón 46. Here you can see the locals decorating the graves, listening to Mariachis playing music for the families and priests giving a mass. On the way you will see many vendors selling flowers to decorate the graves as well as food for the locals.
In the past I have been twice to view the cemeteries at night around Patzcuaro, Michoacan, MX. It is a very moving and magical experience that is not to be missed.
Every year it seems like the celebration has become more commercial to attract customers and tourists. Today festival participants will often paint their faces to resemble skulls and flowers and create costumes that resemble skeletons or dead versions of significant Mexican historical or cultural figures, such as Frida Kahlo and Pancho Villa. The best known is the Catrina which has become the biggest symbol of Day of the Dead. It is based on the artwork La Calavera Catrina, created by José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s, a cartoonist and social activist, which has since become a folk icon. It was meant as a satire to mock the Mexican people for trying to be more European. The Catrina was shown in bones with a French hat decorated with ostrich feathers.
Diego Rivera named her “La Catrina”, in his large mural Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central. The mural can now be seen at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera in Mexico City.
Today there are many parades in Mexico and even in the US. People in San Miguel can be found having their faces painted in the Jardin and even at private parties. Shops and hotels also have decorations around their entrance doors.
I prefer focusing on the traditional celebrations like creating an altar in my house to honor my parents, finding altars throughout town and going to the cemetery on November 2nd. I try to avoid the consumer driven experiences like painting my face and walking in a Catrina Parade.
I hope that you will come and experience it for yourself.