When the gates of heaven open at midnight on All Hallows’ Eve, los angelitos (the little angels) return home for their annual visit. They will spend November 1 with family and loved ones, devouring sugar skulls and candied pumpkin. Then on November 2, the souls of the adult ancestors take the place of los niños as the guests of honor.
Born out of the clash between Aztec ritual and Spanish colonialism more than 500 years ago, this important Mexican celebration contains elements of both Paganism and Christianity. Conjuring up dead ancestors, cooking favorite foods to serve at their graves and creating elaborate private shrines decorated with dancing skeletal figures may seem, to some, a tad goulish. But it doesn’t end there. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), observed in Mexico from October 31–November 2, is not just a celebration for the dead—it is a celebration with the dead.
- In our very own San Miguel, be sure to attend the annual La Calaca Arts Festival. La Calaca will revere and expand sacred traditions and motifs while re-imagining them for the future.
- In Oaxaca, probably the quintessential Day of the Dead destination, travel guides and hotels arrange trips for guests to local cemeteries.
- One of the more famous celebrations takes place on the island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro. Boats are decorated with candles and flowers, and taken to the island’s cemetery, where they spend the night, summoning the dead.
- In the southern part of Mexico City, there is a classic celebration in the village of San Andrés Mixquic. Bells from the old Augustian Convent ring at 4 PM on the second day of November, calling for a procession to the cemetery.
- Toluca hosts the annual Feria del Alfeñique which celebrates the art of making candy skulls.
- Day of the Dead is celebrated with mucho gusto at Guanajuato City’s Mummy Museum.
A topic largely avoided in the West, death has always been front and center among diverse cultures around the world. Remembering the deceased is routinely marked by lighting candles and presenting offerings of food and drink. In the glory days of Ancient Egypt, departed souls were honored during the great festival of Osiris and, to this day, lavish food offerings are made to returning Chinese spirits during the full and new moons of their ‘Ghost Month’.
Gringos in Mexico can learn to embrace death like the natives do, despite being raised, for the most part, to deny its existence. One such gringa with her own Altar de Muertos, honoring her family and extended family, is Nancy Sylvor. Formerly a New Yorker, she decided to make San Miguel her home well over a decade ago. Her alter, developed over the years since, honors her parents, her aunt, her husband’s parents and her friend, Renée. And the incredible canine souls she has been privileged to know (and rescue) over her years in San Miguel: Sampan, Sho Mei, Camila, Doña, Miss Sai Gon, Sau Lei and Sui Yen.
Nancy’s words eloquently illustrate her total adoption of the festivities: “I love this holiday — it’s my favorite. Do I think the souls are really returning to earth, tempted by all the goodies and the scent of the flowers? Not really, but it’s a beautiful thought and everyone feels so united with the living and the dead. Seeing all those people picnicking at the beautifully decorated grave sites, so happy on this wonderful occasion. So festive — and in the middle of the cemetery, standing with throngs around him, is a priest holding services.”
Fiesta of the Dead
When the Spaniards invaded Mexico in 1519 (coming ashore at what is now Veracruz), they encountered a culture vastly different from their own. Far from believing death was the end of life, the Aztecs (and Mayans, for that matter) believed it a continuation of life—and embraced it wholeheartedly. The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead was celebrated for an entire month, beginning in August, and dedicated to the Aztec goddess, Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead”, who corresponds to the modern Catrina.
By the 1600s, more than 3,000 priests were working to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. But the locals were set in their ways, which they had practiced (and preached) for centuries before the conquistadors set out to remake the world in their image. The Spanish missionaries were able to inject some of their religious beliefs into the Aztec death festival by moving the date to the Christian All Saints Day and All Souls Day. But it would remain a decidedly Mexican (and otherwise Mesoamerican) event.
Food of the Dead
Foods for Day of the Dead include pan de los muertos (bread of the dead), which is rich cake-bread festooned with the shapes of skulls and crossbones, and often, red food coloring to mimic blood. Buena suerte—good luck—is said to come to the one who bites into the plastic toy skeleton hiding in each loaf. Sugar skulls, often embellished with the departed’s name, and chocolate coffins rein supreme on November 1 (the day of Los Angelitos), along with miniature pan de los muertos, and other ‘kiddie meal’ size dishes. On November 2, rich traditional meals—tamales, mole, enchiladas—are served as the adult spirits arrive for a day of feasting and reminiscing. The menu is based on the culinary preference of the dearly departed.
- 5–6 cups of flour
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 2 packets of dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon of anise seed
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 1/2 cup of water
- 1/2 cup of butter
- 4 eggs
In a large bowl, combine 1½ cups of flour, yeast, salt, anise seed and sugar. Mix thoroughly.
In a small pan, heat milk, water and butter nearly to a boil. Stir the liquid into the dry mixture until blended. Mix in the eggs and remaining flour gradually as needed until the dough is soft and not tacky.
Knead the dough on a floured board 10 minutes. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl in a warm spot, covered. The dough should rise until it has doubled in size.
Remove the dough from the bowl and press it into a circle, adding shapes of bones or skulls to the top. Let rise for an additional hour.
Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Bake for 40 minutes, until brown.
After baking, sprinkle lightly with confectioner’s sugar topped with colored sugar. You may also want to add a glaze, which will help hold sugar in place.
Hotel of the Dead
While the food and specifics will vary from area to area, it is without a doubt one of the most important fiestas in Mexico. And almost all families will begin the holiday with a trip to the cemetery on October 31 at midnight, bringing toys for the children and tequila for the adults (yes, the dead ones).
In some areas, it is customary to spend the night, where bells are rung for the spirits every 30 seconds from midnight til dawn to ‘wake’ the dead. Gravestones are cleaned and decorated. It’s a huge family reunion, both dead and alive, with hibachis and cooking, drinking, guitar playing with storytelling, and memories shared by the lights of hundreds of candles.
It is the way that the legends and lore of the ancestors stay alive from generation to generation. Sometimes even Mariachi Bands play. But above all, it is a time for reuniting with those who have transcended this lifetime.
Altar of the Dead
Some families construct altars at the graveside, but most are hosted in the home. Boxes of various heights are covered with cloth and arranged on a tabletop—and this is where the offering is made to the spirits to entice them back to visit.
Nancy’s altar is a classic ofrenda with key ingredients: Marigolds (cempazuchitl), the official Day of the Dead flower whose distinctive scent is said to lure the dead; the bright tissue paper cut-outs called palpel picado; the food treats her four-legged family loved so much while on this earth. From Christian tradition come the candles, used to light the way for departed souls. There are photographs on the altar to recall the individuals being honored. A washbasin, towel, soap and mirror are placed nearby so that returning spirits can freshen up after their journey. A typical meal is set out in clay pots—the favorite repast of the deceased—along with fresh drinking water (souls are thirsty after such a long sojoun). And don’t forget the tequila, or as in Nancy’s offering—scotch, as a reminder of the fun times here on earth.
Assembling the altar is reminiscent for Nancy of Christmas: “Making the altar is a very festive occasion in my house. I go downstairs and retrieve the box with all the photos and the sugared treats, like last year’s Christmas ornaments, and the women in the household bring the crêpe paper, the flowers and candles, and the excitement begins.”
The holiday, of course, has mixed feelings for her: “Talk about bittersweet… when it is finished and I look at all the photos and the beautiful altar, I am smiling and tearing up at the same time. I am totally touched and awed every time I stand in front of it! And like my Christmas trees, I don’t want to ever take it down, so I keep it until the last flower has wilted. And the last chicken foot is totally foul. Hard to put all this into words, but who knows, maybe they know and in that way their souls have returned to earth… for that one day.”
In Mexico, it is thought that people die three deaths. The first occurs when the body ceases to function, the heart no longer beats and the eyes hold no depth. The second comes when the body is lowered into the ground and given back to Mother Earth. But the third and saddest death of all is when there is no one left to remember.