Commonly mistaken as ‘Mexican Halloween’, the annual event of Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a pagan event rooted in pre-Hispanic tradition. The celebration is steeped in indigenous beliefs, a culmination of both Aztec, Maya and Toltec, so it is not surprising that the festival’s traditions are most fervently upheld in areas where pre-Hispanic heritage is prevalent.
Celebrated annually between the 31st October and 2nd November, the occasion marks the period when the souls of the dead are believed to return to the worldly realm. It is overridden by a tone of celebration, far from a time of mourning which is believed in many pre-Hispanic cultures to be a sign of disrespect, since death is conceived as merely another stage in life’s long journey.
A joyous event, families unite to celebrate the memories of lost loved ones, paying a visit to the family plot at the local cemetery. In homage, candles are lit, foods are prepared, and altars or ofrendas are constructed either in the family home or at the graveside by way of a welcoming portal, marking the gateway for souls to pass through.
Ritual traditions abound, including cleaning the home in preparation for this sacred time. Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is baked to nourish souls after their long journey from the afterlife. Come evening, locals gather in cemeteries to enjoy home prepared meals and sip their relative’s favourite drinks – most commonly hot chocolate or some warming tequila.
Sporadic and chaotic parades take to the streets, serenaded by a cacophony of mariachi trumpets, and the scent of cinnamon fills the air as traditional candied pumpkins are offered as street snacks. The figure of ‘La Catrina’ dominates, particularly on the ubiquitous sugar skulls, depicting the aristocratic and overtly European woman-cum-skeleton, as a reminder that death is the greatest leveller of all.
Celebrations begin on October 31st with the Night of the Witches, followed by the Day of the Innocents in honour of departed children. Parades in Mexico City commonly take place on the official day of celebration – November 2nd.