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A Quintessential Mexican Holiday: Day of the Dead

October 29, 2019

While Halloween is a cherished and much-anticipated holiday in the U.S., where kids dress in costume and trick-or-treat from door to door, in Mexico the main autumnal celebration is Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos).

A uniquely Mexican holiday that originated long ago in several pre-Hispanic cultures, Day of the Dead is an acknowledgement that death is a natural phase in life’s continuum. The dead, kept alive in memory and spirit, are recognized as members of the community. Imbedded in the culture is the belief that the souls of the deceased return to the home of the living to be with family members and feed on the food offered to them on the altars placed in their honor.

While Halloween takes place on October 31, Day of the Dead is commemorated on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Christian calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest. One of the best places to observe this special holiday is the historic quarter of San Jose del Cabo, where Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in a colorful display of life-affirming joy.

The theme is death, but the gatherings are not morbid. Families get together to offer love and show respect for deceased family members. Revelers don makeup and costumes, march in parades, sing and dance at parties, and make offerings to lost loved ones. Visitors will see altars, or ofrendas, on the sidewalks of downtown San Jose del Cabo. These altars are meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. They’re adorned with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, a favorite meal, family photos, a candle for each dead relative.

For the living, offerings include pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, a typical sweet bread (pan dulce) dotted with anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolize sorrow.

By venerating the departed in a joyful way, Day of the Dead has been perpetuated over the centuries as a genuine celebration. Mexicans from all ethnic and religious backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos, a holiday that endures as a reaffirmation of life.

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