If you are in the U.S., make sure that you have a bowl of candy on hand because tonight is Halloween! It’s been coming for a while – stores put out the pumpkins, fake spider-webs, and fun-sized candy more than a month ago. But did you know that “Día de los Muertos” is also coming up?
What is Día de los Muertos?
It’s a Mexican holiday with origins that date back to pre-hispanic times. In English, it means “Day of the Dead”, which is actually two days – November 1st and 2nd. November 1st is observed to remember children who have died, while November 2nd honors adults who have passed away. In Mexico, only November 2nd is observed as a federal holiday.
How is it Celebrated?
Just like many holidays in the U.S., “Día de los Muertos” is a mix of Christian and pagan cultures. Before the Spaniards colonized Mexico, the Aztecs believed that their dead ancestors would return to visit them once a year. They honored these ancestors with celebrations in late summer, which were later moved to fall on the same day as the Catholic holiday “All Saints Day”. Today, Mexicans celebrate “Día de los Muertos” by visiting their loved ones in the cemeteries and making altars in their homes. These altars have candles, candy skulls, flowers (primarily marigolds), religious symbols like the cross or “La Virgen de Guadalupe”, and pictures of the deceased. Family members also leave out food for their dead relatives – foods that they really loved when they were still living. Schools, stores, and government buildings often set up generic altars to honor all of the deceased and to perpetuate what is considered a uniquely Mexican holiday.
Other ways of celebrating vary drastically by region
While some areas of Mexico still have elaborate parades and activities, others have smaller celebrations that have been eclipsed by the “American Halloween”. For example, my husband, who is from Mexico City, remembers walking in the streets on November 2nd and asking strangers, “¿Me da mi calaverita?” (“Will you give me my little skull?”) He would then receive candy or small change in return. Nowadays, my nephew in Mexico City follows the American tradition of dressing up and trick-or-treating on October 31st.
Two years ago, I found myself in Mexico City shortly before “Día de los Muertos”. As we walked through the streets, I saw a mixture of American and Mexican cultures. Street vendors were selling sugar skulls and dancing skeleton figurines, but they were also selling superman costumes and orange plastic jack-o-lanterns. There is one part of “Día de los Muertos” that I think will live on forever – the “Pan de Muerto” (Bread of the Dead). It is a round loaf of sweet bread decorated with the shape of bones and dusted with sugar. You can find it at any bakery in Mexico City, and it’s the best bread I have ever tasted. Once, when I was feeling particularly ambitious and wanted to surprise my homesick husband on November 2nd, I tried to follow a laborious and elaborate recipe for “Pan de Muerto”. (I found it on the internet.) Alas, it was a disaster. Perhaps some of the “Día de los Muertos” magic can only be found in Mexico. Either that, or I need to give up baking.
Miranda is an English and Spanish teacher. Find her free English classes on Facebook every weekday at LiveEnglish with Livemocha. She currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, where she and her husband are raising two bilingual children.