Meg Weaver, our senior researcher and resident expert on all things español, gives us the deets on the Day of the Dead.
As the macabre spectacle that is Halloween wraps itself up, it’s time to celebrate El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) this November 1st and 2nd. One of Mexico’s most important holidays, the Day of the Dead originates in pre-Hispanic indigenous traditions spanning at least 2,500 years.
Unlike Halloween’s focus on the frightening and scary, Day of the Dead is almost like a Mexican Memorial Day during which families gather to remember their recently departed and assemble an ofrenda (offering) in the form of an altar, filled with the favorite foods and drinks of the deceased, wax candles to represent their soul, water to quench their thirst, and papel picado of various vibrant colors.
Many families head to the cemetery on the Day of the Dead on November 1st to welcome deceased children back from Mictlan (land of the dead) and on November 2nd to commune with deceased adults also returning, for one day, from Mictlan. During this time, the cemetery takes on an almost festive air.
Mysticism blends with mariachis playing and people dancing. Copal, a resinous sap, is burned. People place calaveras (skulls) made of sugar, often emblazoned with the deceased’s name, on the ofrenda tables. A black humor pervades the space as yellow and orange cempasúchitl (marigold) petals are scattered about. (This video captures some of the icons of the Day of the Dead.)
Nobel Prize-winning Mexican writer and poet Octavio Paz quipped that Mexicans don’t mind getting up close and personal with death; in fact, the Mexican “…chases after it [death], mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.” Ironically, the Day of the Dead in Mexico is a celebration of life, an acknowledgement of death as a fact, and a culmination, of life.
One of the most authentic Day of the Dead commemorations takes place on the island of Janitzio, in Michoacán state, about 30 miles from Michoacán’s capital, Morelia. Here’s a video that captures some of the emotion of Day of the Dead on Janitzio Island.
In our fair city of Washington D.
C., the National Museum of the American Indian is hosting its own celebration this
Saturday, November 1, from 1-5 p.m. There will be dancing, storytelling, art installations, and the opportunity to make your own papier-mache skeleton and papel picado.
The Mexican Institute in Washington, DC (Institúto de Mexico en Washington, DC) will show off its own ofrenda
- Nat Geo Expeditions
altar and provide tamales, pan de muerto (the traditional Day of the Dead bread made with anise and orange zest), and chocolate.
Or, if you’re up for a more artistic Day of the Dead, head over (oddly enough) to Almaz Ethiopian Restaurant to take in Art Outlet’s Ofrenda: Art of the Dead
installation, featuring ofrendas created by over 30 DC artists. You’ll have the chance to paint your own sugar skull and listen to DJs and folk rock well into the night. Ofrenda runs both Friday and Saturday nights.