The Americans have Halloween, the Europeans have All Souls’ Day, and the Mexicans have the Day of the Dead, a celebration of departed souls.
The Day of the Dead dates back to pre-Hispanic times when festivities were held for an entire month in a celebration of death and the continuation of life. Following the European colonisation of Mexico, the festivities were eventually moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day – November 1 and 2, respectively – celebrated in Europe with visits to the cemetery to pay respects to departed loved ones, and in the US, with Halloween, on October 31.
It’s a time when Mexicans traditionally visit graves and clean them, set up special altars at home, called ofrenda, and make offerings to their dead of things they used to enjoy in life, including food. In some rural areas, people put on huge celebrations, pave the streets with flowers, light candles and let off fireworks.
The food element is important. Families bake a special sweet bread called pan de muerto into the shape of a skull with pastry “bones”. Along with other favourite food items, including sweets, drinks and fruit, the bread is placed on the family ofrenda . In the evening, families get together and eat this sweet bread along with Mexican hot chocolate, or champurrado.
It’s both a happy and sad day. It’s a day of colour and festivity, candy skulls for the kids and memories of loved ones. Kids ask for money for their calaveras (skulls) in their version of trick or treat. Day of the Dead flowers include chrysanthemums and marigolds – along with the candles on the ofrenda, these bright flowers will light the way for the dead to return for the night.