Flickering candles, the scent of copal incense, sugar candy skulls and garlands of marigolds herald one of Mexico’s most important and colorful festivals, Día de Muertos or the Day of the Dead, which takes place on November 1 and 2.
Mexicans believe that the souls of the dead return to earth at this time of year and they welcome them back with joy tinged with sadness. All over the country, masses and graveside vigils are held and special altars are erected to honor the departed.
Altars are intensely personal and although some objects are indispensable, no one altar is alike. Photos and the treasured personal belongings of the deceased, a cross, rosary and the image of a patron saint or the Virgin of Guadalupe are arranged upon the altar against a backdrop of orange cempasuchil and red cockscomb flowers, cut tissue paper and candles. Gourds and clay vessels contain offerings of the deceased’s favorite foods and beverages; aromatic copal incense, fruit, chocolate, atole or corn gruel, salt, and water, in case the spirits are thirsty. Toys and candies decorate the altars of children, music lovers are remembered with serenades and cigarettes might even feature on the altar of a former smoker.
Candles and a trail of petals mark the way home and a smaller offering is placed outside the house to welcome lost spirits. According to tradition, the souls of children or angelitos, return to earth on All Saints Day, and adults on All Souls Day.
After visiting the tombs of their loved ones, families will consume the offerings of food and drink and pan de muerto, a sweet bread served with hot chocolate or gruel.
The Mayan Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixan, which means “feast of souls.” Throughout the Yucatán, families make the pilgrimage to the cemetery to visit the graves of their loved ones and erect altars to honor the souls of children and adults. If the deceased was a happy person who liked to party, the altar will be erected in the yard so that he or she can celebrate without disturbing the living.
Tables laden with offerings of mucbipollo, large chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit and gourds of tan-chucua, a corn gruel flavored with crushed cacao beans, pepper and aniseed are set up under the trees outside the house. Pumpkins, squash, corn, bread and flowers are added and the candles are lit. As night falls on November 1, the Maya believe that the dead draw near to dine. The next day it is the turn of the living; they eat the mucbipollo, washing it down with gruel and balche, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and the bark of a tree.
Where to see the Day of the Dead Festival
Guests staying at the Royal Resorts will be able to see altars on display in The Royal Market and in Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Visitors may also want to visit Xcaret for the Festival of Life and Death, a celebration of the traditions associated with this annual event. In neighboring Yucatan, schools and colleges have erected altars in the grounds of San Bernadino de Siena monastery in Valladolid this year. In Merida, local people and visitors stroll along the Corredor de las Animas (the path of the souls), Calle 66 between La Ermita and the City Cemetery, which will be lined with up to 250 different altars.
Mexico’s most famous Day of the Dead celebrations take place on the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacán and at Mixquic on the outskirts of Mexico City.