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Celebrating Día de Muertos in Mexico

The Mexican traditions of Día de los Muertos have been gaining awareness in the United States over the past several years. In Mexico, every small town seems to have a celebration, both public, and in private homes, honoring passed loved ones. The celebrations include food, music, and prayer, and seeing it first-hand in a Mexican town is a joyous and beautiful experience. Below, a visitor shares their experience participating in these traditions.

dia de los muertos products altar sugar skull catrina

I hope some day to return again to Mexico to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos — the Day of the Dead, the darkly beautiful tradition held throughout much of Central and South America.

Until then, I will remember with words and photos my trip a few years ago to Riviera Maya in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan Peninsula. Those three days and nights from October 31 through November 2 were unforgettable.

The Day of the Dead celebration begins with food, including regional cuisine such as tamales and mole sauce, pumpkin and fruit sweets, and the famed pan de muerto (bread of the dead). Mexican markets sell toys and candy transformed into deathly symbols such as skeletons, coffins, and La Muerta, death herself.

And then there’s the fun. Calaveras, cheeky poems criticizing politicians or chiding friends and family, are written as if the person had already passed — a clever mockery of death, reminding us of our own mortality. Shopkeepers and families paint their faces for several days, posing and preening.

On October 31, All Hallows Eve, children create altars to entice the angelitos (the spirits of dead children) to return, and go door-to-door asking for calavaritas, sugar skulls. It’s Halloween, but with an emphasis on family and departed loved ones rather than costumes.

November 1, All Saints Day (El Día de los Angelitos), poignantly focuses on deceased children, who are believed on this day to return to life. Graves are cleaned and decorated with candles, paper streamers, and seasonal flowers such as marigolds.

And on November 2, All Souls Day — the true Day of the Dead — families and loved ones gather at cemeteries to be there when adult spirits return.

Celebrations include music, food, and prayers. Home altars are adorned with photos, lighted incense, candles, flowers, and candy skulls inscribed with the names of the deceased. Altars typically include papel picado (Mexican folk art of colorful, cut paper), and personal objects and favorite foods of the departed. Lighted candles illuminate the way for the dead souls.

And then there are the haunting legends. At nightfall, my face painted in stark black and white, I joined a few others in a small boat. We floated on a cenote (cave), where the symbol of death prowled around in another boat, candles lighting the water with the heat of faith and life, far more evocative and beautiful than any Halloween haunted house. The sound of lapping water in the darkness was truly eerie, as the “Catrina” in our boat told her mournful tale of her lost children.

Catrina is Mexico’s favorite, most adapted representation of death — the star of many Day of the Dead celebrations.

Ancient stories are part of the Day of the Dead’s power, and our Catrina told us about beautiful Xtabay, who frightens men with her revenge. And La Llorona, who in grief and anger drowned her sons in a river and has wandered forever to find their bodies.

The celebration’s ending varies, depending on the region. At our Mayan ritual of darkness and fire, the shaman, surrounded by flames, gave thanks for the sacred elements of Water, Sun, Wind, Earth and Life. Villagers danced to drums beats, and the Xcalacoco community prayed for harmony, promising to continue feeding the Fire of Life, despite the looming spectre of death.

At least once in your life, plan to share this experience — to bond and have fun, and to remember those who have come before. I can’t think of a more ideal intergenerational trip.