Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), celebrated between October 31st and November 2nd, is a celebration in which Mexicans remember and honor their deceased loved ones. Though it may sound gloomy or morbid, it's not. It's a festive and colorful holiday. Mexicans visit cemeteries, decorate the graves and spend time there - in the presence of their deceased friends and family members. They also make elaborately decorated altars (sometimes called ofrendas) in their homes to welcome the spirits.
Origins of Day of the Dead - a merging of cultures:
In Prehispanic times the dead were buried close to family homes (sometimes in a tomb underneath the house) and there was great emphasis on maintaining ties with deceased ancestors, who were believed to continue to exist on a different plane. With the arrival of the Spaniards and Catholicism, All Souls' and All Saints' Day practices were incorporated into Prehispanic beliefs and customs and Day of the Dead came to be celebrated.
The belief behind Day of the Dead practices is that spirits return to the Earth for one day of the year to be with their families. It is said that the spirits of babies and children who have died (called angelitos, "little angels" ) arrive on October 31st at midnight, spend an entire day with their families and then leave. Adults come the following day.
Day of the Dead Altars:
The spirits are greeted with offerings of food and things that the person enjoyed in life. These are laid out on a Day of the Dead altar in the family home. It is believed that the spirits consume the essence and the aroma of the foods that are offered. When the spirits depart, the living consume the food and share it with their family, friends and neighbors.
Other items that are placed on the altar include sugar skulls, often with the person's name inscribed on the top, pan de muertos, a special bread that is made especially for the season, and cempasuchil (marigolds) which bloom at this time of year and lend a special fragrance to the altar.
In the Cemeteries:
In ancient times people were buried close to their family homes and there was no need to have separate grave decorations and home altars, these were together in one place. Now that the dead are buried away from their homes, graves are decorated with the idea that the dead return there first. In some villages flower petals are laid in paths from the cemetery to the home so that the spirits will be able to find their way.
In some places it is customary to spend the whole night in the cemetery, and people make a party of it, having a picnic supper, playing music, talking and drinking through the night.
Day of the Dead and Halloween:
Day of the Dead and Halloween have some commonalities. They both come from early cultures' beliefs about death that later mixed with Christianity. They are both based in the idea that the spirits return at that time of year. Customs around Halloween seem to stem from the idea that the spirits were malevolent (children were disguised so that they wouldn't be harmed), whereas in Day of the Dead festivities, the spirits are joyfully welcomed as family members that one hasn't seen in a year.
Day of the Dead continues to change, and a mixing of cultures and customs continues to occur. Halloween festivities are becoming more prevalent in Mexico: masks and costumes are sold in the markets alongside sugar skulls and pan de muertos, costume contests are held along with Day of the Dead altar contests in schools, and some children dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating ("pedir muertos".
Where to celebrate Day of the Dead:
Day of the Dead is celebrated in different ways in different places. Festivities tend to be more colorful in the south of Mexico, particularly in the states of Michoacan, Oaxaca and Chiapas. In rural areas celebrations are mostly solemn whereas in bigger cities they are sometimes irreverent. There are a few destinations that are well-known for their Day of the Dead observances.