Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, stretches over more than one day. It is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, as well as on Halloween. An annual holiday with roots in the Aztec culture, Dia de los Muertos remembers the lives of loved ones with altars, vigils, parades and visits to cemeteries.
The Aztecs celebrated a month-long holiday when the dead returned to earth. The goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld, and the Lady of Death, presided over the festivities. Celebrants displayed human skulls, the symbols of death and rebirth, on ritual altars. Now, the skulls are made of sugar, candy or bread.
After Catholicism came to Mexico, the festival of the dead changed. Blended with the official holidays of All Saints and All Souls' Day, along with the unofficial customs of All Hallows Eve, it became a new occasion. Dios de los Muertos now celebrates community and culture, as well as the loved ones who have passed on.
In Mexico and in many Hispanic communities in the United States, October 31 is the Dia de los Angelitos or the Dia de los Ninos, when deceased children are believed to return to visit their families. The night of November 1 is the Noche de los Muertos, when the adults return to visit, and November 2 may be called the Dia de los Defuntos, the Day of the Faithful Departed.
The Day of the Dead celebration varies widely. It can range from a single day to at least a week of parades, cemetery visits and public altars.
The altars are a symbolic threshold between this world and the next. Often covered with a white cloth, they are decorated with objects expressing personal memories of the deceased that are designed to draw the loved ones back to visit.
Ornaments may include flowers, incense and picados papeles, colored paper cut into intricate designs. Offerings may include toys, food, musical instruments, clothing, jewelry, food, drinks and photographs. Candles make a light to guide the spirit, and an empty chair may welcome the deceased. Public altars may include symbols of community and culture.
The scent of flowers is believed to draw spirits. Orange marigolds are woven into garlands and worn as necklaces, displayed on altars and graves, and thrown from parade floats. They may be strewn in front of a house, making a path to guide the spirits home. Cockscomb, baby's breath and flowers made of crepe paper also decorate altars and graves.
Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead, is decorated with bits of egg dough formed into shapes like skeletons and skulls. Sometimes it is shaped like a dog, because it is believed that when a person dies, a white dog may greet him and dance with him to help him cross the river to the underworld.
Candy is also shaped into skulls, skeletons or tombstones. The deceased's favorite foods are cooked for him, and there is often mole, tamales, pumpkin candy, chocolate and atole, a beverage made from corn.
The dead consume only the spirit of the foods prepared for them; the living may eat the food or dispose of it ceremoniously.
Some families remain at the altar waiting for a visit from the dead. They tell funny or touching stories about the deceased and share family news from the past year. Food and drinks are provided for the watchers, along with the special food prepared for the spirits. People may listen to music, dance or play card games as the deceased did.
Some stay up all night, while others end their vigil at midnight. Vigils may be held at home or in the graveyard.
Family members tend the graves of the deceased, scrubbing clean the markers and trimming the grass. They decorate the graves with streamers, ribbons and cut-paper ornaments. Candles light the way, and flowers fill the air with an enticing scent. Some people paint the tombstones or the crypts in vivid colors. In some communities, many families gather and socialize in the graveyards, remembering together their loved ones who are gone.