In Mexico, the festival of Día de los Muertos embodies the greatest expression of both popular Catholicism and the national cuisine. People construct altars in homes and graveyards throughout the country in order to feed the souls of the dead. Church officials recognize two holy days, November 1 (All Saints’ Day), in commemoration of saints and martyrs, and November 2 (All Souls’ Day), in memory of the faithful departed. According to popular belief, the angelitos (deceased children) return on the evening of October 31 and the adults on the following night, although the dates in local celebrations vary all the way from October 28 to November 4. The feast for the dead originated as a form of ancestor worship, and the clergy were long reluctant to incorporate such pagan practices into the liturgical calendar. The festival held particularly strong associations with pre-Hispanic agrarian cults because it coincided with the maize harvest.
Celebrations begin with the cleaning of the graves and the construction of the ofrenda, or altar. At home this consists of a table or platform hung from the ceiling, covered with a white cloth and supporting an arch of palm fronds. The ofrenda are decorated with flowers, particularly the cempasúchil (marigold), the “flower of the dead,” as well as the magenta-colored cockscomb, a white gypsophila, gladioli, and carnations. The same flowers are also used to decorate tombs, and the sweet smell of copal, the Native American incense, is ubiquitous. Other altar decorations include images of the deceased as well as papeles picados, colored paper with cutout designs.
The foods offered to the dead vary according to age and taste, but bread, water, and salt are always included. The bread is made from a special egg dough in a round shape, with crisscrossed strips of dough forming bones, and a skull in the center. Sugar candies with similar skull and calavera (skeleton) designs are also popular. In some areas of Oaxaca and Michoacán, bakers shape the bread to resemble humans or animals. Offerings for children are miniature in size and relatively simple: breads, candies, fruits, and milk or soft drinks. The adult dead receive the finest foods, grown-up breads and sugar figures, as well as candied pumpkin and other sweets. More elaborate preparations include mole (turkey in a rich chili sauce) and tamales (corn dumplings stuffed with meat and chili and steamed in husks or banana leaves). The spirits also drink their favorite beverages, whether soft drinks, coffee, chocolate, beer, or tequila. Some people maintain that the level of the liquid decreases overnight, showing that the dead do indeed return to share in the feast.
The Day of the Dead has recently become an important tourist attraction for towns such as Mixquic, near Mexico City, and in the state of Oaxaca. Yet despite this increasing commercialization, the festival exemplifies the distinctiveness of the Mexican mentality; rather than a time of trick or treat, it celebrates the intimate connections between the living and the dead.