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14 things you didn't know about the Day of the Dead

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The typical understanding of Dia de Los Muertos is candy skulls and… Mexico stuff. While not wrong, there’s wa-a-ay more to this drop-dead awesome holiday. How much more? Exactly 14 things you’re going to read about!

A festooned graveyard
<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Amy Goodman/Flickr</a>

1. It’s not one day, but two, and sometimes even three

The official dates are November 1st -- Día de los Angelitos, dedicated to children -- and November 2nd, Día de los Difuntos, for adults. But in many areas, people proceed to the graveyard for a vigil beginning after dark on October 31st. Thanks to Spanish Catholic intervention, the dates coincide with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day -- but that’s just official cover for the holiday’s very pagan roots. Aztec, Maya, and other indigenous cultures in Mexico and farther south all had distinct annual rituals for ancestor worship. The Maya in the Yucatán still even use the old name (see #12).

2. Day of the Dead’s ghosts are friendly, not scary

Despite the similar dates, this isn’t like the US version of Halloween. Instead of tales of terror, families share fond remembrances. What, you've never seen a really friendly skull before?

Graveyard party
<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Nick Sherman/Flickr</a>

3. It really is a party at the graveyard

While it’s all about remembering those who aren’t with us, the Day of the Dead is definitely not a downer... it just happens to take place in a cemetery. Everyone tucks into special food and tells jokes and funny stories about the deceased. Bands often stroll from grave to grave, playing serenades of favorite songs (unless those songs are by Journey). Bigger cities or towns famous for their celebrations also schedule public events beyond the cemetery, such as parades, concerts, dance performances, and more. 

4. Graves become works of art

Families typically clean and decorate graves for the holiday. San Andrés Mixquic, part of Mexico City, is famous for its celebrations, especially on the last day, when people create intricate patterns out of carpets of flowers. In a candle-lit procession called the Alumbrada, visitors stroll through the cemetery to admire the creations and pay respects.

La Catrina
<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Roslyn Taber/Flickr</a>

5. That lady skeleton you see everywhere has a name

That fetching woman with the big feathered hat and skull face is called La Catrina. She’s the creation of José Guadalupe Posada, a political cartoonist during the late 19th century, who drew her as a critique of the decadent elite of the Porfirio Díaz regime. See, friendly and politically relevant skulls -- not scary at all!

Graves with flowers
<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Mark/Flickr</a>

6. There’s an official flower

The strong scent of marigolds is said to attract souls from the other side. When the flowers are laid out on graves, around door frames, and on home altars, Mexicans say, “Ya huele a muertos”, which translates to, “It’s beginning to smell a lot like the Day of the Dead”. Meaning they're probably a really weird first-date flower.

7. In Michoacán, the festivities start with a morning duck hunt

The Purépecha people of Lake Patzcuaro celebrate the holiday with a zeal that’s famous around Mexico. So famous that up to 100,000 visitors descend on the lake each year. Locals nab ducks in the morning (sometimes with atlatls, traditional spear-throwers that can huck a projectile close to 90 mph), then cook them up for a hearty midnight meal at the graveyard. Celebrants are meant to keep vigil all through the night, which is why the festival is usually called Noche de Muertos here. 

A Dia de los Muertos altar
<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">genibee/Flickr</a>

8. You might see an altar at a bank

At home and at offices and other businesses, people set up altars for those who’ve passed away. These ofrendas, typically decorated with flowers & candles, are personalized with photos, favorite foods, small bottles of booze, cigarettes, and other items that were special to the dead (and probably to lots of living people too).

9. People write poetry for the occasion

Calaveras can mean skulls, but the word also refers to calaveras literarias, short and sassy poems about the deceased, both famous and familiar. During the celebrations in the city of Mixquic, there’s even a calaveras competition.

Sugar Skulls
<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Angélica Portales/Flickr</a>

10. A skull is an appropriate gift

Sugar skulls, usually customized with the recipient’s name, are a standard treat. The finest sugar skulls are made in the city of Toluca, which hosts the Feria de Alfeñique, a celebration of molded-sugar art that lasts from mid-October through the Day of the Dead. Although the skulls are considered quintessentially Mexican items, the craft itself was first brought to Mexico by Italian missionaries. Now that's-a spicy, uh... skull!

Pan de muerto
<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Annabelle Orozco/Flickr</a>

11. Bone bread is a typical food

Pan de muerto is a sweet bread eaten for the holiday. Rich and eggy and often flavored with anise or orange flower water, it’s kneaded and shaped to resemble two or more crossed bones.

Hanal Pixan
<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Hotel MedioMundo/Flickr</a>

12. The Mayans celebrate their own version

Don’t go to the Yucatán Peninsula expecting the usual skulls and skeletons and wild processions. The Maya here do celebrate the holiday, locally called Hanal Pixan, but with a different aesthetic. Ofrendas are usually built out of lush palm and banana leaves, while the celebrations at cemeteries are more subdued.

13. Day of the Dead is celebrated in other parts of Latin America too

It makes sense, considering it’s a pre-Columbian holiday. Guatemalans make an elaborate cold salad called fiambre, composed of dozens of mixed-up ingredients, like boiled eggs, cabbage, beets, sardines, even hot dogs. It’s said to have evolved from all the little dishes people brought to the graveyards then combined into leftovers. In Ecuador, it’s called Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased), and people eat little baby-shaped breads called guaguas and dunk them in a hot, blood-red blackberry juice called coladamorada. Brazilians celebrate it as Finados and, in recent years, both Rio and Sao Paulo have been taken over by decidedly non-traditional “zombie invasions”, parades of gory, costumed ghouls organized flash-mob-style.

Day of the Dead in America

14. And the United States gets in on the action 

You don’t necessarily have to head south of the border to see Day of the Dead festivities. Tucson, Albuquerque, and San Diego all have parades, reflecting their historical Mexican roots with subtle American flavor. And by "subtle American flavor", we do mean strumming a washboard.