It’s also thought to be the one time a year that spirits can return to earth, so preparation begins days or even weeks in advance – decorating elaborate sugar skulls, baking loaves of pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and setting up extravagant altars to encourage the souls of the deceased to come back and visit the living.
Altars are usually decorated with things like marigolds, photographs, colorful punched paper banners, food and drinks (traditionally mole or tamales, but also whatever it was that the deceased enjoyed on earth), candles, decorative sugar skulls and skeletons, toiletries (so the spirit can freshen up after their long trip), and things that the departed liked when they were alive.
Family members also head to the cemetery to clean the graves of people who’ve died and decorate them with candles and marigolds, which are supposed to help guide souls back to their families. On November 1 – All Saints’ Day, which is dedicated to remembering children who died – there’s a candlelit procession to the cemetery, and family members decorate graves with toys and balloons. On November 2 – All Souls’ Day, which is dedicated to adults that passed away – families bring a picnic lunch and stay the night listening to Mariachi bands, sharing some of the the deceased’s favorite food and alcohol, and watching fireworks.
It’s a huge national holiday in Mexico, with pockets of people celebrating around the world, and there are celebrations across the country. If you can’t make it to one, you can head over to the Smithsonian Latino Center’s Theater of the Dead where you can decorate your own altar, or try your hand at baking your own pan de muerto.
By Megan Ranney