The Day of the Dead is not a mourning event, as one would expect. It´s a colorful Mexican tradition celebrated with family and friends in honor of the dead. According to old mexican belief the souls of the deceased return on the Day of the Dead to their relatives, to celebrate a happy comeback.
What is the Day of the Dead?
The intensive examination of dying and life after death has a long tradition and comes originally from the Mayas and Aztecs. They believed that death was the beginning of a new life, the transition to a parallel world. The dead was honored with elaborated rituals and they got in contact with them at the same time. With the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards and the spread of the Catholic faith, the Aztec death cult merged with the Christian feasts of All Saints (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).
The day of the dead in México is celebrated on two days and depends on the people who are honored on the day. November 1st is dedicated to the children and November 2nd to the adults.
The heart of the celebration is the altar or “Ofrenda”, which is built at the houses, in cemeteries, restaurants, schools, etc. The Ofrendas not only serve for praying, they also welcome the spirits of the dead to the realm of the living.
The altars are equipped with the following components, which generally have a strong symbolism for Día de Muertos:
#1 Candles – Fire Element
Candles are an important part of the Ofrendas, so that the souls of the deceased can find their way into the realm of the living. On the nights of November 1st and 2nd the Mexican cemeteries appear in a sea of lights.
#2 Colorful paper flags – Wind Element
Colorful paper flags adorn not only the altars in these days, also streets, Restaurants, houses, patios etc. Because of their blowing in the wind, the relatives know when the souls have arrived.
#3 Tequila, Mezcal, Water – Water Element
After the long journey from the hereafter, the souls are thirsty, so you will usually find a small glass filled with Water, Tequila, Mezcal or Pulque (a sweet, fermented drink made from agave juice) on the altars, but also Atole (a thin, warm porridge made from corn flour with unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon and vanilla). Also hot chocolate can be found on the Ofrendas, depending on the region.
#4 Food – Earth Element
The deceased souls are not only thirsty but also hungry from the long way to us from the hereafter. The altars contain the favorite dishes of the deceased or the traditional pan de muerto (dead bread), which the confectioners have been making since mid-October. The pan de muerto is a kind of round small bread made from sweet dough and sugar crust. You can find out what it looks and tastes like in our You Tube Channel: https://youtu.be/2UASL22ASGo
You can find a recipe for baking here: https://www.buenos-dias-mexico.com/buen-provecho-pan-de-muerto/
The Pan de muerto is mostly consumed in the mornings or evenings of October- and Novemberdays with hot chocolate or Atole.
#5 Toys for children / Favorite objects for adults
That the dead souls do not get bored on the night of their return, the Ofrendas are equipped with their favorite objects (e.g. music instruments) or toys for the children.
#6 Decorative Sculls – CALAVERAS
A typical symbol of Día de Muertos is the scull (called Calavera). This is known beyond Mexico’s borders and can consist of chocolate, sugar, marzipan, ceramics, wood etc. Usually the name of the deceased can be found on their foreheads. The skulls are also considered a popular “souvenir” from Mexico. Calaveras were short, humorous poems during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was often sarcastic epitaphs that appeared in newspapers and made fun of the living. These literary calaveras eventually became a popular part of the Día de Muertos celebrations. Even today, this is still practiced extensively: one encounters the clever, satirical poems in printed form, at readings, on the radio or on television.
In the middle of the altar you can always find a photo of the deceased.
#8 Incense or Incense Candles
The smoke from the incense candles or incense should transmit praise and prayers and is supposed to purify the area around the altar and lead the souls of the deceased to the celebration or altar.
The yellow-orange Cempasúchil are the flowers of the dead and smell very strong. So the spirits of the dead are able to smell them particularly well and can also recognize the orange color. Everything glows orange in November and the streets, door entrances etc. are decorated with them from mid-October.