In Mexico, a country full of color, tradition, and flavor, the Day of the Dead stands out as especially colorful, traditional, and flavorful. Rooted in Pre-Hispanic practice and caught up in the trick-or-treat influence of Halloween, the holiday is a chance to honor deceased relatives with an altar in the home, dress up as an elegant skeleton, and sample the best of Mexico’s artesanal candy.
The Day of the Dead takes place on November 2, but it’s celebrated several days or even weeks before, especially when it happens midweek, making a long weekend. While it’s one of the most public holidays in Mexico, in many ways it’s also the most personal. Besides costumes and outdoor events (more on those below), perhaps the most interesting part of the holiday is that people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried.
They clean it up, decorate it with flowers, and even may spend the night there, eating, drinking, playing music, and remembering their loved ones.
“We don’t cry. It’s a celebration,” says Pedro, a guitarist and music teacher. His family decorates their relatives’ graves with candles, photographs, and orange flowers. They sing songs, tell stories, and tell their dead relatives about everything new in their lives.
The Ofrenda (Altar)
Another more personal manifestation of the Day of the Dead is the altar that families set up in their homes. Called an ofrenda, in it they place photographs of deceased relatives and some of their favorite foods, including cigarettes and alcohol if the person liked them. It’s as if the relative will come back for a visit, and the family wants them to feel welcome again.
Not only families do this, but places all over Mexico. Here’s an ofrenda from the university where I work:
Day of the Dead Parade
Spectre, the James Bond movie from 2015, presents a highly stylized view of the Day of the Dead. In the first scenes of the movie, there’s a big parade with lots of noise and action, with people running around in colorful dresses and skull makeup. Apparently the Mexican government spent a huge amount of money to get the scene included in the movie, and the skeleton character even made it onto the cover:
In an example of life following art (or art following art?), there are now Day of the Dead parades, called Paseo de las Animas, going down the same city streets in Mexico City, usually the weekend before the holiday. Along with floats of skulls and big colorful monsters called alebrijes, they include thousands of actors in skeleton costumes and makeup. (The skeleton, called catrina for women and catrin for men, is the iconic figure wearing a flowing gown or old-style suit.)
Small towns have these solemn processions as well:
Feria del Alfeñique in Toluca
The Mexico City parade might be relatively new, but displays, events, and markets selling Day of the Dead specialities have been happening for years all over the country in the days leading up to the holiday.
The Feria del Alfeñique in Toluca, the central Mexican city where I live, is a great place to sample all the flavors and soak up the atmosphere. (Alfeñique is a type of sugar candy.)
In the Portales, an outdoor mall of arches in the center of town, hundreds of vendors sell all kinds of candies, decorations, and skeleton figures for the Day of the Dead, either to try right there or to put in your family altar.
No altar would be complete without calaveritas, the colorful candy skulls. They represent the dead relative, whose name you can have drawn on the forehead in sugar.
You can get candied everything, including all kinds of vegetables and fruit, like limes, pumpkin, and nopales (cactus leaves). Here are some tempting bananas:
I especially enjoy the oficios, little skeletons doing their various jobs.
If you want to experience the Day of the Dead but without a late night in a cemetery or the enormous crowds of a parade, come to Toluca for the Feria del Alfeñique. It’s an easy bus ride from the Observatorio metro stop/bus station in the west of Mexico City. Once you get to the Toluca bus station, take a “safe taxi” (taxi seguro) to centro, downtown.
A big catrin and catrina in downtown Toluca:
Because the Day of the Dead comes right after Halloween, and because of similar themes, the two holidays have become somewhat mixed up in Mexico. Parents dress their children in scary costumes to bring them downtown to trick-or-treat, visiting businesses and asking passersby for candy, instead of walking around their neighborhood. This doesn’t only happen on October 31, but a few days before and after.
It’s also common for people in elaborate costumes to accept money to pose with you for photographs.
Look out for this guy:
Please click here to see more photos, and see you next year.
For a more recent post about the Day of the Dead in Mexico, please click here.
November 2 is el Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico. Starting in early October, the Feria del Alfeñique is set up in central Toluca, with vendors, skeleton displays and shrines of offerings for dead relatives from various ethnic groups and universities in the State of Mexico.
The Ofrenda (Offering)
For this holiday, Mexicans remember their dead relatives by placing a shrine in their homes full of fruit, sweets, and sometimes booze. If Grandpa used to like a special tequila or whiskey, then in the ofrenda it goes, along with Grandma’s favorite snacks and candies.
The Cemetery Visit
Along with the ofrenda at home, many people pay a visit to the cemetery to decorate graves of dead relatives and spend some time with them.
“We don’t cry. It’s a celebration,” says Pedro, a guitarist and music teacher. His family decorates the graves of their ancestors with candles, photographs, and yellow and orange flowers. They tell stories and sing songs, and fill in their relatives on what’s new in their lives. Pedro just got engaged, so he will tell this to his grandmother.
Some people stay all night, drinking beer, tequila, or mescal, tequila’s cheaper cousin. If they drink, then they share with the dead, splashing a little on the ground now and then. All night in cemeteries across Mexico there is light from candles and fires, music, singing, and praying.
The Feria del Alfeñique (Alfeñique fair) in Toluca
Here in Toluca, where I live, about a hundred vendors set up in the Portales, a pedestrian mall and series of arches downtown, and sell all things related to the holiday. This is the Feria del Alfeñique, a great way to sample skull-and-bone-shaped Mexican candies.
Big sugar skulls called calaveras are the most representative candies of the Day of the Dead. The image, with its colorful trim and toothy, laughing mouth, can be seen everywhere – on plastic banners for restaurants advertising their special meal, cut out of decorative pastel paper, and on sugary candy of many sizes.
Aside from sweets you can get little handicrafts for your ofrenda. My favorites are the calavaritas, little skeletons at work, such as doctors, teachers, musicians or strippers. They are great gifts – buy the one with the same job as your friend. Last year I bought a taco cook for a friend who’s a chef, and for a friend with an office job, a little skeleton in a suit with his skeleton secretary on his lap. They cost only a few dollars, a great deal for being handmade.
Toluca is a little off the tourist track, but it’s an easy trip from Mexico City – only an hour or two. Take a bus from the Observatorio station in Mexico City, and then a taxi (30 pesos) to downtown Toluca (centro) and the Portales.
November 1 or 2 are the nights for a cemetery visit, but if you come to Toluca anytime during the month before the Day of the Dead, you can get a good taste of the tradition at the Feria del Alfeñique right here in the center of town.
I’ve lived here in Toluca for a few years now, so I have other articles on this blog and elsewhere if you’d like to see some more pictures or read more about this important Mexican holiday.
For a more recent post about the Day of the Dead in Mexico, please click here.
Big thanks the The New World Review for publishing my story about the Day of the Dead.
People make offerings for their dead relatives. These are from the university where I work.
In central Toluca is La Feria del Alfenique, the place to buy skull candy.
Yes you can eat it all.
Calevaritas: great gifts, buy the one doing the job your friend has.
Another offering, this one downtown.
La Catrina y mariachis muertos!!!