Timeless Traditions: Day of the Dead in Mexico

It’s that time of year again when Mexican markets are full of orange marigolds and sugar candy skulls and trails of flickering candles lead to ornate altars laden with flowers, offerings of food and photos of loved ones. The whisper of prayers is carried on the breeze and people prepare to join a procession. In an outpouring of faith, the whole country is ready for Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead.

Celebrated on November 1 and November 2, Día de Muertos is the most famous of Mexico’s many colorful and rich traditions. It is a blend of ancient ritual dating back thousands of years to the days of Mesomerican cultures such as the Maya, Purepechas, Zapotecs and the Aztecs and Christian customs introduced by missionaries in the 16th century in the wake of the Spanish Conquest. In 2003, UNESCO included the festival in the World Heritage list in the Intangible Culture category in recognition of its importance.

This is a time for Mexicans to remember those who have passed on. They believe that at this time of year the souls of the dead return to earth for a brief visit. They welcome them back with joy, affection and a wealth of memories. All over the country, masses and graveside vigils are held and special altars or ofrendas decorated with flowers, fruit, candles, colored cut tissue paper and crosses are erected to honor the departed. Families prepare the favorite foods of their loved ones and serve a glass of the liquor they were partial to and place them on the altar, along with treasured personal belongings and photos. Toys and candies decorate the altars of children, music lovers are remembered with serenades and cigars might even feature on the altar of a former smoker.

According to tradition, the souls of children, the angelitos, return to earth on November 1 (All Saints Day), and adults on November 2 (All Souls Day).

Day of the Dead Altars and Offerings

Day of the Dead altars are intensely personal and vary from region to region, but they all share certain symbolic elements:

  • Flowers. Orange marigolds or cempasuchil represent the sun, earth, life and hope. With their color and scent they are said to attract the departed and lead them to the altar. Other blooms used include cockscomb, sweet-scented lilies, gladioli, calla lilies and gypsophila. Purple flowers are a symbol of mourning. A trail of marigold petals and candles is laid to show the way home and to the altar. A smaller offering may be placed outside the home to welcome lost souls.
  • Candles for light, love and the ascension of the spirit
  • A cross crowning the altar, also representing the four cardinal points
  • An arch decorated with flowers symbolizing the journey to the hereafter
  • A rosary and the image of a saint or the Virgin of Guadalupe
  • Water, a symbol of the purity of the soul, life, rebirth, served in a glass for thirsty souls
  • Copal, aromatic incense incense obtained from the crystallized sap of a tree for purification
  • Offerings of food such as oranges, tangerines and sugar cane, corn, salt, chocolate, candies, atole or corn gruel and candied pumpkin nourish the spirits that draw near
  • Pan de muerto, this sweet bread is a symbol of the Eucharist and an offering associated with the bounty of the earth
  • The deceased’s favorite foods such as tamales or mole
  • Photos of the deceased
  • Personal belongings of the deceased. In the case of children these may be much-loved toys or candies. Music lovers would be remembered with serenades, instruments or CDs and cigarettes might even feature on the altar of a smoker.
  • Colorful cut tissue paper, said to represent the wind and joy
  • Alcohol, such as tequila, mezcal and other drinks the person enjoyed in life
  • Sugar candy skulls with the name of the deceased. Skulls are a symbol of life, death and rebirth
  • Colorful sawdust carpets or made from flower petals, seeds, beans or rice portraying images of skulls, skeletons or other symbolic images are often laid at the foot of the altar.

Hanal Pixán, Day of the Dead in the Yucatan

The Mayan Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixán, 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.

As night falls on November 1, the Maya believe that the dead draw near to dine and they prepare a feast for them. Tables laden with offerings of mucbilpollo, large chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pib or pit and gourds of tan-chucua, a thick corn drink flavored with crushed cacao beans, pepper and aniseed are set up under the trees outside the house. Pumpkins, squash, corn, bread, fruit, sweets, honey cakes and flowers are added to the altar, candles are lit and incense burns. The family spends the night in prayer and vigil. The next day they eat the mucbilpollo, washing it down with gruel, chocolate or balche, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and the bark of a tree.

The Maya believe that the souls of the dead return to earth for eight days. During this time they abstain from certain tasks such as hunting with guns or sewing so as not to injure one of the wandering souls. Newborn children wear a black thread around their wrists to protect them from any evil spirits that may have also near. On the eighth day or ochavario, the dead prepare to depart this earth for another year and new offerings are placed on their tombs to bid them farewell.

Day of the Dead Altars at Royal Resorts

Many Royal Resorts departments erect their own Day of the Dead altars and you’ll see them in The Royal Market, restaurants like Hacienda Sisal and at The Royal Cancun, The Royal Sands, The Royal Caribbean and The Royal Islander in Cancun and at The Royal Haciendas in the Riviera Maya. The Royal Resorts Training department organizes a Dia de Muertos Altar Competition in the Cancun resorts and this year 21 different departments took part. Judging is underway now and you’ll be able to see photos of the winners and all the entries on this blog in the coming days. A similar competition was held at The Royal Haciendas on October 30.

Altars may represent different states in Mexico and feature the photos of friends, family members and even workmates that staff have lost and wish to remember.

Flor de Canela, the signature Mexican restaurant at Grand Residences by Royal Resorts in Puerto Morelos also has a magnificent altar.

Where to see Day of the Dead Traditions in Quintana Roo and Yucatan

Traditional altars are on display in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Valladolid, Izamal and in the main square in Mérida.

Xcaret Festival of Life & Death Traditions

An unforgettable experience, the Festival of Life and Death Traditions at Xcaret takes place on October 30, 31 and November 1 and 2. The Festival celebrates Day of the Dead customs with traditional altars, art, music, dance and theater.

Mayan communities from Quintana Roo and Yucatan participate in the festival with music and dance performances, altars and traditional Day of the Dead dishes such as tamales and mucbilpollo.

Each year, a different Mexican state is invited to participate in the Festival and in 2018 it is the turn of the northern state of Zacatecas, rich in history and traditions and full of colonial churches built with the wealth from silver mining.

Festival de las Animas in Merida

The Festival de las Animas in Merida features several days of Hanal Pixan events. There is an exhibition of more than 250 altars in the main square of Merida and surrounding streets, the Paseo de las Animas procession from the City Cemetery to San Juan Park on October 27 and 31, music, theatre and dance.

In La Mejorada park (Calle 50-A, between Calle 57 and 59), the Camino de las Flores is a pathway of flowers made with more than 20,000 cempasuchil marigolds (known as x’pujuc in Maya), cockscomb, chrysanthemums and petunias among others. Plants are sculpted to form gravestones, angels, colonial arches and even hummingbirds.

Pixan Festival in Felipe Carrillo Puerto

In the heart of the Zona Maya in central Quintana Roo, the historic town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto is hosting its first festival de las Animas or Pixan. The program includes processions, altars, theatre, dance and music, including Mayapax, the ancient music of the Maya.

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