Ever wondered why you hear so much about the "Day of the Dead" celebration in Mexico? Do you think the traditional Mexican observance is as big as Halloween is in the United States?
Well, it's actually bigger - and much deeper in meaning and tradition. Much preparation must take place, like the building of intricate and ornate altars, the making of specialty foods and candies, candle making and gift wrapping, the arrangement of flowers, cleaning of family grave sites.
It is a holiday with a complex history, and therefore its observance varies quite a bit by region and by degree of urbanization. You must understand, it is not a morbid occasion, but rather a festive time involving the entire family and community.
The ancient indigenous peoples of Mexico believed that the souls of the dead returned each year to visit with their living relatives - to eat, drink and be merry with their loved ones. In modern times, children who have passed on are remembered on November 1st, All Saints Day, with toys and colorful balloons adorning their graves. The following day, All Souls Day, adults who have died are honored with displays of the departed's favorite food, as well as ornamental and personal belongings. Flowers, particularly the zempasúchil, or marigold, and candles, are placed on the graves where family members can come and "commune" with the dead.
To understand it fully, it's necessary to look into the distant path of the indigenous people of Mexico.
The original celebration can be traced to many Meso-American native traditions, such as the festivities held during the Aztec month of "Miccailhuitontli", ritually presided over by the "Lady of the Dead" (Mictecacihuatl), and dedicated to children and the dead.
In the Aztec calendar this ritual fell roughly at the end of the Gregorian month of July and the beginning of August, but in the post conquest era it was moved by Spanish priests so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve (in Spanish: "Día de Todos Santos.") This was a vain effort to transform the observance from a profane to a Christian observance.
The Aztecs believed that after a person died, his/her soul would pass through nine levels prior to their final destination, Mictlan - the place of the dead. They also believed that a person's destiny was founded at birth and that the soul of that person was dependent on the type of death rather than the type of life lead by that person. How a person died would also determine what region they would go to. Once they arrived to their specific region a person's soul would either await transformation or linger, awaiting the next destiny.
Specifics of the celebration vary greatly within the various regions of Mexico, but one of the most common customs involves the construction of elaborate altars to welcome the departed spirits home. Vigils are held, and families often go to cemeteries to tidy up and decorate the graves of departed relatives. Festivities also frequently include traditional foods such as pan de muerto(bread of the dead), which can conceal a miniature skeleton, or sugar skull.
Food, in fact, is considered an indispensable part of the celebration. The foods offered in the memorial are different according to the wishes and social status of the deceased. Typical foods include: bread, fruits vegetables, and sweets. Other delicacies available for the celebration include the sugar skulls (bought from the bakeries with the names of each on of the members of the family who are alive and of the deceased), candied fruit and pumpkins, tamales and maize dough cakes, as well as enchiladas and chalupas.
In the city of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, the local commercial bakery brings in young men from Santo Domingo Comaltepac, "the village of the master bakers" for the annual Day of the Dead, solely to bake massive quantities of pan de muerto, special loaves of bread. The Indian bakers of this valley's surrounding barrios produce three types of bread, each differing by the amount of egg and type of spice used, and according to the preferences of the families. The bread can be formed into different shapes and is commonly decorated with sugar. Bread is always placed on the altar and can not be removed until the visit by the dead.
A loaf of bread is also traditionally given to visitors who come home during the time of celebration . The must common shape sold in the Mexico City bakeries is round and decorated with a cross in the shape of bones covered with sugar.