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Celebrating with the Dead

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) originated thousands of years ago with pre-Hispanic cultures, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth.

Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a combination of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar. Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy, all to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members coming back to visit and to appreciate the living more deeply.

The most common custom of the holiday involves altars being constructed in the home or by the graves of deceased loved ones. The Altar de Muertos is often decorated in bright colors like orange and purple, with traditional sugar skulls, Mexican marigolds, photos of the deceased, and ofrendas. An 'ofrenda' is an offering of gifts to the spirits of relatives to coax them into coming back into this realm to reconnect with their living relatives. On the 1st of November, the souls of children are offered toys and sweets, then November 2nd, the adults receive such offerings as pan de Muerto, alcohol, marigolds, and tobacco, or anything that person was fond of.

Another custom is that of holding vigil in the cemetery to greet the dead. Not all families choose to honor their loved ones at the cemetery itself, but the tradition of cleaning the grave is still respected by most. This task usually includes tidying the area surrounding the headstone, and placing marigolds. A complete altar is often constructed there, as well. Graveyards during the Day of the Dead celebrations, contrary to what you might expect, take on the atmosphere of festive social gatherings, telling stories of the dead.

These two traditions are found throughout Mexico, but there are also different types of celebrations found in certain locations. If you find yourself in Mexico City the weekend before Day of the Dead, make sure to stop by the grand parade where you can enjoys live music, bike rides and other activities in celebrations throughout the city. And one of the most famous celebrations takes place on the island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro. At night, boats are decorated with candles and flowers, loaded with local villagers and visitors who are taken to the island’s cemetery. There they spend the night, summoning back the dead in celebration.

In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Día de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is certainly worth experiencing. Wherever you decide to visit, always be respectful of the deeply held traditions that make this celebration special. Take what is offered to you, do your best to interact politely with people and always ask in advance before taking photos.

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