The Day of the Dead is, I think, a pretty unique celebration. Not at all sad and gloomy, nor scary and creepy, it is a colourful, cheery and so typically Mexican defiance of mortality. Perhaps it breaks a few modern taboos along the way, but it's all about reverence and respect for the dead, a way of connecting with your deceased loved ones and your ancestors and mocking the finality of death.
I didn't know anything much about it before I came to Mexico, so I thought I'd describe some of the customs associated with this fascinating holiday.
You can see the celebrations all over Mexico. There are some places that are famous for their Day of the Dead festivities, for example, the village of Patzcuaro in Michoacan, or the city of Oaxaca. Wherever you are, it's probably customary to pay a visit to the graveyard or cemetery and perhaps take a meal to "share" with the dearly departed.
Wherever you go at this time of year you will see bright orange and yellow cempasuchil flowers (marigolds), for sale on markets and in greengrocers, and adorning altars to attract the souls of the deceased with their warm fiery colours. Sometimes the flowers are arranged to form a path leading the dead towards the altar.
The most common way to celebrate, in cities and villages alike, is to make an "Altar de Muertos", a sort of altar dedicated to one person in particular which has specific elements with different meanings and purposes. The purpose of the altar is to invite the dead back to the world of the living to eat and drink the things that they enjoyed when they were alive and they are built in homes, shops, schools and sometimes at the graveside. Common elements, apart from the food and drink, include a cross, an image of the deceased person, salt (to represent purification), flowers, fruit, a glass of water, candles and copal incense to guide the dead and ward off evil spirits. In the cemetery of Mixquic in the south of Mexico City, families prepare altars at the graves of their loved ones with offerings of the deceased's favourite food and drink.
Lastly, in the village of Pomuch in Campeche, they have a very peculiar tradition; the inhabitants actually clean the bones of their deceased relatives and dress them up ready for the Day of the Dead, also washing and repainting their display cases. They do this without any particular ritual, for them it's all very natural and matter-of-fact.
These are a few of the traditions surrounding this holiday, but there are many more... If you're intrigued, why not come and experience the Day of the Dead for yourself? I'm sure there's nothing quite like it anywhere else!