While related to Halloween, Day of the Dead is not the same. This festive occasion pre-dates Halloween and can be traced to pre-Hispanic times; indigenous Mexican peoples had strong beliefs about death. They felt that the dead needed the same things as the living, which meant that they should be buried with all their possessions.
So before you start getting all excited about dressing up and shimmying into your scary, sparkling costumes, there are few key things to know about this three-day celebration between October 31-November 2 known as Day of the Dead.
1. Both holidays are based on the idea that spirits return to earth during this time of year, but Halloween, which coincides with the Catholic holiday called All Souls & All Saints Day, believed that the spirits were bad, which is why children were disguised so they wouldn’t be harmed.
2. In the Hispanic culture, it is believed that the dead consider getting upset about their passing away is disrespectful, as death is a natural part of the human experience and part of the continuum of life. This is a celebration of their lives. So kick up your heels and party on!
3. In Pre-Hispanic times, the dead were buried close to family homes, often a tomb underneath the central patio of the house.
4. Altars called “ofrendas” are made in each home to honor the dead. They’re decorated with candles, flowers, food fruit, (plates of turkey mole, tortillas – yum!), water, soda, sugar skulls, skeletons, toys, (for the children, the “angelitos”), shots of mezcal and to rejuvenate the weary souls after being awakened from their eternal sleep and traveling from their other-worldly plane of existence.
5. Marigolds are the flowers that are placed on the ofrendas because they guide the spirits to the altars using their vibrant colors and scent.
6. It is believed that at midnight on October 31, the gates of heaven are opened and the spirits of all deceased children are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours.
7. On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to party with their families and friends.
8. Children’s toys are also left at the altar for the angelitos and include sugar skulls, long-legged sheep and deer, comadre sugar figurines (mini women) and molded sugar coffins.
9. On the afternoon of November 2, the party moves to the cemetery, where people clean tombs, play cards, listen to the village band and reminisce about their loved ones.
10. Day of the Dead has its own bread, Pan de Muerto. Its shaped like people – heads and all – and is dunked in hot chocolate drinks!
11. There are special markets for Day of the Dead, where people can buy the special food for the altars like chocolate, tamales and black mole sauce.
12. Oaxaca is a super popular destination for Day of the Dead – each year there is a sand tapestry set up in the Palacio de Gobierno (now the Museu del Palacaio). There is also a contest for the best altar, as they’re set up around the main floor of the building.
13. One of the most popular costumes you’ll see during the Day of the Dead celebration is for Catrina, a ghoulish lady in a hat created in the early 20th century that was meant to be a social comment on Mexican society’s emulation of European sophistication.