Also known as Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of Halloween, contrary to popular belief. Rather, while related, these two annual events differ when it comes to traditions and tone. Halloween is a night of terror, mischief, tricks and treats; the Day of the Dead involves festivities held over two to three days filled with color and joy. This year it will be celebrated from Wednesday, October 31 through Friday, November 2.
Yes, the theme for both holidays is death, but with the Day of the Dead, the purpose is to show love and respect for deceased loved ones, says National Geographic.
It’s celebrated throughout Mexico and Latin America, where people dress up in colorful makeup and costumes, take part in parades and parties, celebrate through song and dance, and make offerings to family members they have lost. All the rituals have symbolic meaning with decorations filled with colorful skulls and skeletons.
It originated many thousands of years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and Nahua people, who thought that mourning the dead was disrespectful. Rather, they thought death was a natural phase in life, with the dead still being members of the community even though they no longer inhabited a body.
Keeping their spirit and memory alive was their primary reason for celebrating. And on Día de los Muertos, those deceased loves ones temporarily returned to Earth.
It’s customary to place a dead loved one’s favorite meal on an altar, which is the centerpiece of all Day of the Dead decorations. People eat Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, which is a sweet bread called pan dulce, filled with anise seeds and decorated with skulls out of dough. The bones are typically arranged in a circle, to represent life. Small dough teardrops symbolize the sorrow that comes with a loved one’s death.
You’ve likely seen the sugar skulls that are a big part of the food offerings for this holiday. They are pressed into molds and decorated with crystalline colors. In terms of beverages, people drink pulque, which is a sweet fermented beverage made out of agave sap; atole, a warm porridge made out of corn flour; and hot chocolate.
This social holiday takes place in the streets and public squares at any time of the day or night. Many people dress up as skeletons or artfully paint their faces. Others wear suits and fancy dresses, shells and noisemakers.
Today, Día de los Muertos is more popular than ever, not just in Mexico but in the States too, made possible in part by official recognition by UNESCO.
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