November 1, All Saints’ Day, and November 2, All Souls’ Day, are marked throughout Mexico by customs that vary widely according to the ethnic roots of each region. Common to all, however, are colorful adornments and lively reunions at family burial plots, the preparation of special foods, offerings (ofrendas) laid out for the departed on commemorative altars, and religious rites that are likely to include noisy fireworks.
In most places, November 1 is for remembrance of deceased infants and children, or angelitos (little angels). Those who died as adults are honored November 2.
From mid-October through the first week of November, vendors all over Mexico sell special accoutrements for the Día de los Muertos. These include all manner of skeletons (catrinas) and other macabre toys; intricate tissue-paper cut-outs called papel picado; elaborate wreaths and crosses decorated with paper or silk flowers; candles and votive lights; and fresh seasonal flowers, particularly cempazuchiles (marigolds) and barro de obispo (cockscomb). Among the edible goodies are skulls, coffins, and the like made from sugar, chocolate, or amaranth seeds, and special baked goods, notably sugary sweet rolls called pan de muerto that come in various sizes, often topped with bits of dough shaped like bones. All are destined for the buyer’s ofrenda de muertos (offering to the dead).
At home, a designated area of the home may be cleared for the altar. The family might decorate it with papel picado, candles, flowers, photographs of the departed, candy skulls inscribed with the name of the deceased, and a selection of his or her favorite foods and beverages. The arrangement often consists of a table and several overturned wooden crates placed in tiers and covered with clean linens. The offerings are then laid out in an artistic and fairly symmetrical fashion. The smell of burning copal (incense) and the light of numerous candles are intended to help the departed find their way. The spirits of the dead are expected to pay a holiday visit home and should be provided with adequate sustenance for the journey. Frequently a washbasin and clean hand towel are provided so visiting souls can freshen up before the feast. The offering may also include a pack of cigarettes for the after-dinner enjoyment of former smokers, or a selection of toys and extra sweets for deceased children.
In addition to an altar, relatives spruce up gravesites at the family burial plot—cutting down weeds or planting during the rainy season, as well as giving tombs a fresh coat of paint after making any needed structural repairs. The graves are then decorated according to local custom. The tomb may be adorned by a cross formed of marigold petals or elaborately embellished with colorful coronas (wreaths) and fresh or artificial floral arrangements. In many areas children’s graves are bedecked with brightly colored paper streamers or other festive adornments. Family members gather at the cemetery for gravesite reunions more festive than somber. Some bring picnic baskets, bottles of tequila for toasting the departed, or even a mariachi band to lead a heartfelt singalong. Sometime during the day, an open-air memorial mass, the occasion’s most solemn interlude, is held.
If you’ve never visited San Antonio’s San Fernando Cemetery on the Day of the Dead, you may be astonished at its colorful and festive appearance. Across the street, vendors sell flowers. Families bring lawn chairs, musical instruments, and food, and gather around a grave site to share stories of their departed relative. Children are not left out of the festivities; they also come and do what normal children do: play. You may be lucky enough hear several mariachi groups throughout the cemetery simultaneously serenading the departed and those present. It is a joyous celebration!
Another must prior to Día de los Muertos is a visit to our downtown farmers market. There you will find the same kind of trimmings found in Mexico and many more, some with a local Tex-Mex/ San Antonio flavor. The place explodes with vibrant colors. More recently in many cities across the U.S., Día de los Muertos has taken on a more crosscultural festival type of atmosphere with parades, young and old dressed in elaborate costumes representing many facets of death, concerts, open-air markets, and food trucks. Actually, the only way to get a clearer notion of Día de los Muertos is to experience it—so please do!
(reposted from November Hilltop Herald)