One of the most extravagant, opulent and unforgettable celebrations in Mexico is the Day of the Dead, which actually takes place for two days, November 1st and 2nd, on the All Saints and the Day of the Faithful Departed. Witnessing the gatherings in small town cemeteries, with flowers, candles, food, booze and the colorful, festive atmosphere is a very special treat, and we would recommend it to all – one to add to your bucket list.
The relationship that Mexican culture fosters with their dead is full of closeness, companionship, fun and acceptance that death is a continuum of life, not the end. There is no fear or terror linked to it, which enables any Mexican to deal with the idea of death in a manner different than a typical foreigner. It is a topic people talk about, being very relaxed, commenting on the time when they are not around without any dread of evoking the doom or a flowerpot falling on their head. A typical Mexican, however, enjoys the ghost stories more than anything, and will have a thrill of their life telling you about “la niña” (the girl) that supposedly died in that place where you are in that moment, and comes back to haunt everybody, eat their food, pop up from the walls and such.
During October, life-sized papier-mâché skeletons are everywhere, not as a frightening prop but rather as a decoration – wrapped in colorful clothes, hats, fathered boas, sitting on a chair in a beauty salon, restaurant or in a bar, appearing to be a friendly neighbor about to start a chat. On November 2nd, folks write funny speeches and poems that they would say on each other’s funerals, and then read them out loud, to each other, having loads of fun.
However, if you can’t be in Mexico on those dates, you can just as well create that festive feeling in your own homes and share it with your circle of friends. Here are the tips on how to organize a party that will be all the rage and the talk of the town for at least a year. Let’s get to it…
- La Ofrenda – The Altar
The most traditional element of the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and a must have in every home, dedicated to the departed. It is the wonderful mixture of Indigenous and European influences. Every impressive altar needs to contain the following:
- Flowers - The most typical are the fiery orange flowers, called Cempasúchil, from the marigold family. Cempasùchil means “four hundred petals”, and represents joy and the sunshine, which lead the spirit of the dead in the Aztec tradition. In addition to that, the magnificent, pink-purple Terciopelo (velvety Celosia Cristata), that adds drama and excitement. Other flowers that are frequently used are white baby breath (nube, stands for cloud in Spanish) for purity and all sorts of chrysanthemum. The flowers represent the Earth, as one of the 4 elements. The flowers will decorate the altar, frequently placed in an arch that represents the gates, and some petals should be placed on the ground, as a path that will guide the souls.
- Copal or Incense – Copal is an aromatic resin from the copal tree, used since pre-Columbian times to drive away the evil spirits. Represents Air.
- Glass of Water – to quench the thirst of the dead, after a long journey. Represents the Water element, of course.
- Candles – The flame represents the light, faith and hope that guide the souls to their old home, and back. Represent Fire.
- Salt – A purifying element, keeps the body from decay during the travel.
- Banquet – Pan de Muerto (please see below for more details), cigarettes, alcohol, favorite food of the departed are there to host the visiting souls as they deserve. Fruit, grains, offer the nature’s abundance to this picture. The story goes that the food placed on La Ofrenda never gets spoiled, but loses the flavor, as the souls feast on it and take out the essence.
- Photographs and personal items of the departed - You will probably find this part especially emotional and understand the feeling of closeness and unity with the dead that the Mexican culture nurtures. These items will remind us of the joys and the shared moments with our loved ones.
- Sugar and Chocolate Skulls – Representing the dead, but frequently, for fun, bought with the names of the living written on their foreheads. Available at any market in Mexico during October, but probably the nicest examples can be found in Feria del Alfeñique in Toluca.
- Papel Picado
Color, wild and overwhelming, is an indispensable element of any Mexican party, especially on this occasion, when the garlands of papel picado (banners of tissue paper with cut outs, depicting different scenes) bring in all the colors together perfectly. For the Day of the Dead, you need the papel picado with the skeletons dancing, playing guitars, cooking and partying. Papel picado should be placed at the altar, as well as hung around the room or the patio for the festive atmosphere. You can find those in our shop, in the Special Occasions section, but hurry because they are being sold fast.
- Pan de Muerto – The Bread of the Dead
The Bread of the Dead represents the body of the departed, but are happily eaten by the living, because it is delicious. There is a classic recipe for the version of this yummy, buttery pastry that we are adding in October in our blog, by the chef Yury de Gortari, traditionally made in the biggest part of Mexico. As a special treat, we will add another recipe for the irresistible Pan de Muerto from Mitla, Oaxaca, decorated with meringue drawings, and made only during the week of October 25th till November 2nd. That scarcity adds to its allure. Stay tuned, both recipes are coming soon.
- Favorite Food in Stunning Dishes
The traditional food choice for the Day of the Dead would be something special that the departed loved. In Mexico it is usually a festive version of tamale and mole of all kinds. You can prepare whatever you chose, but for this occasion, it will look its absolute best in the famous elegant, shiny black clay plates from Oaxaca. The drinks can be served from the mysterious black clay tumblers or blown glass in a dark shade of Smoke. Your guests will be amazed.
- Dressing Up
This kind of party requires the same style of costumes. Skeletons dressed in fancy, elegant clothes, long dresses with feathered hats, wedding gowns, traditional huipiles or with a Frida Kahlo-styled flower headband, tuxedos with top hats, are the best option. If you are skillful with make-up, go crazy with the white, red and black face color and add sequins for the finishing touches. We got some ideas for you in our Pinterest board called Day of the Dead, that you can consult here.
Now all you need is to gather the crowd and have a blast.
And we want pictures - please tag us on Instagram (@Mexico.1492) or Facebook (@Mexico1492).