Newbie's Guide to The Day of the Dead

The Día de los Muertos - an ancient and spiritual festival in Mexico and Latin America

The Day of the Dead. First thought: isn’t that film the Night of the Living Dead? But forget flesh-eating corpses dragging their rejuvenated bodies through the streets to feast on the living - the Día de los Muertos is a cheerful, celebratory festival across the Americas where families come together to remember their deceased ancestors in a traditional and respectful way.

It’s based on the belief that the dead would be insulted by sadness and mourning, so altars are set up in each family’s home to adorn the dead relative with their favourite foods, gifts, candied sugar skulls, orange marigold flowers, candles and photographs. Don’t confuse its skeletons and skulls with their scary Halloween counterparts: the two celebrations may coincide but the Día de los Muertos is far from a fright night, rather seeing death as integral to life.

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The biggest celebrations are in Mexico. Here remembering departed relatives is a two-day bank holiday from 31 October to 2 November. The first day focuses on children who’ve died, and the second on adults, although festivities vary from region to region.

Mexico is also where the Día de los Muertos originated. It evolved from an Aztec festival celebrating the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the defleshed skeletal deity who guarded the bones of the dead. Although the modern celebration is Catholic, the Aztec goddess is still echoed in calaveras, skeletal ladies, adorned everywhere.

 

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The Day of the Dead is a family celebration, so of course it involves food. Pan de Muerto is cooked, the shape of the Bread of the Dead baked to symbolise tears and bones. Afterwards try Calabaza en Tacha, a pumpkin desert, or the popular candied skulls you’ll find everywhere.

Pan de muerto

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For a really special Día de los Muertos, head to Janitzio. This tiny island in Lake Pátzcuaro is so beautiful that indigenous inhabitants apparently believed it must be the door to heaven.

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During the festival, thousands of visitors and locals arrive on candle-lit boats to spend the night at vigils in the graveyard. Families leave food, gifts and orange marigold flowers (which were also used by the Aztecs) at their relatives’ graves. While you’re in Janitzio, watch out for ‘butterfly’ fishing, a traditional fishing method still practised in the early hours of the morning.

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Mixquic, a barrio mágico just outside Mexico City, also prides itself on its centuries-old customs during its famous Day of the Dead festivities. Like Janitzio, the town is pre-Hispanic and stone skulls have been excavated from indigenous homes in the area. In Mixquic, the main event not to miss is the Alumbrada - the illumination of graveyards with thousands of candles. You’ll see houses with stars and crosses on their front doors to guide the souls home, and don’t miss the Hour of Campanera where children ring bells and ask for candy.

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