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Day of the Dead a time of remembrance for the living

Zach Stovall

Skull imagery is ubiquitous during the Day of The Dead, like these gaily-colored catrinas and skulls from the Los Milagros Art Gallery.

While the name and many of the icons symbolic with the holiday may evoke macabre imagery, the Day of the Dead is a time for gatherings in remembrance of ancestors and others who have died, and to make offerings − ofrendas − to the deceased, and the celebrations often take a lighthearted form, with parades, parties and humorous storytelling.

The pre-Hispanic, Mayan and Aztec roots of the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, date back at least 3,000 years. Traditionally associated with Mexico, its celebration has also found its way around the world, often blending in local cultural influences with the ancient traditions.

These celebrations were originally tied into the Aztec calendar, and lasted for a full month. Now, the Day of the Dead typically spans November 1st and 2nd, with many cultures using one day to honor children (known as Dia de los Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents, in Mexico) and the second to honor adults.

Ofrendas left for the deceased can take a variety of forms: some cultures will build altars at private homes with photos and candles to commemorate the departed, while others will leave the ofrendas at churches or the cemetery, sometimes camping out at their relatives’ final resting place.

Flowers are commonly scattered − Mexican marigolds are ubiquitous − but the ofrendas often include a smattering of the less-serious favorite things of the deceased. Toys may be left for the children, and it is not unusual for perfume, cigarettes or alcoholic drinks like mescal and tequila to be left for adults. It’s believed that the souls being honored are making a long pilgrimage to the festivities, so bedding like blankets is often left for them, as well.

Click here for the ultimate guide for Day of the Dead

Food is another important element of the Day of the Dead − the ofrendas can take the form of foods and candies, and one of the best known is pan de muertos, sweet loaves of bread topped with bone-shaped strips of dough. Traditional Mayan food, like mucbil pollo (chicken tamales) is served at some Day of the Dead celebrations, particularly in the Yucatan.

Finally, the most iconic symbol of the Day of the Dead seem to be the skulls − in the origins of the holiday, actual skulls were kept and used as symbols of both death and rebirth. More modern manifestations of the skull can be seen in the calaveras, “sugar skull” candies often left as part of the offerings. This skull imagery is also seen in the catrinas, small figurines with the face of a skull but the attire of a Mexican woman, that are also commonly left.  The catrinas are a relatively new symbol, based on an image created by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s known as "La Calavera Catrina," or "The Elegant Skull."

Zach Stovall

The mock graveyard at Xcaret, Mexico, is colorfully decorated with marigolds, candles and other ofrendas.

For those in the United States seeking to attend a Day of the Dead celebration, they are becoming more prevalent, and may be either traditional or done in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Locations with strong Mexican-American communities will often have more formal and traditional Day of the Dead ceremonies and parades, while in California, for example, the Hollywood Forever cemetery combines Aztec rituals with costume contests, DJs spinning music and tributes to rockers like Johnny Ramone.

The increased U.S. interest in the festivities has led to an increase in travelers to Mexico at this time, as well. A top Mexican destination for travelers is the Riviera Maya. Xcaret, an ecological preserve south of Cancun, features artists, dancers, storytellers and musicians from the local Maya communities from October 31-November 2; sacred rites and rituals are recreated, with the air heavy with incense. Also on the Riviera Maya, Yaxche, in Playa del Carmen just north of Xcaret, offers a feast each year on November 2 that includes mucbil pollo, formal rituals and dance troupes.

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