The name of this cultural tradition in Mexico may sound ominous, but it is actually an occasion filled with joy and celebration. The Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, occurs directly after Halloween, but there is no similarity between the two. On November 1, it is believed that souls of relatives and ancestors who have passed away have a 24 hour window in which to visit the living. Family members prepare in advance to honor and remember the life of their loved one, and spend the day celebrating the time they had together rather than mourning their deaths.
They begin by building ofrendas earlier in the month, which are beautiful altars that they put up in their homes. They are made up of a number of traditional items as well as things the person loved in their lifetime. The ofrenda includes pictures, candles, buckets of marigold flowers, artifacts of favorite hobbies, and special foods, including turkey tamales, tortillas, fruits and Day of the Dead breads, specially baked for the occasion. Little toy skeletons and candy skulls, calaveras de azúcar, provide the final touches.
The ofrenda should both include these traditional elements as well as remember the essence of the relative they’re honoring For example, if someone were building an ofrenda for me, there would be books by my favorite authors, cinnamon and floral scented candles, little statues of dogs and pictures of all the pets I’ve owned over the years, sheet music for the piano and lots of chocolate! Those familiar items would make my family members remember the things that made me happy during my lifetime as well as please my visiting soul.
Other traditions that fill the day include visiting the gravesite and decorating it with festive candles and flowers. And each town will put on events like parades, where they may be special dances performed by members of the community. These customs tend to carry more solemnity in the smaller villages than in the cities, where the festivities are larger in scale and more celebratory in nature. Like most celebrations in Mexico, the particular traditions and customs will vary from one part of the country to another, influenced by thousands of years of history.