The Day of the Dead is an ancient tradition, but don’t make the mistake of looking at it like a south of the border version of Halloween. Each aspect of the holiday, from the ofrendas (shrines with offerings to those who have passed away) found in every Mexican home to the pan de muerto you’ll nibble on the streets, has a deep cultural meeting — and not always the one you’d expect.
Photos and crucifixes adorn the ofrendas constructed by Mexican families in homes and cemeteries, but these are offerings, not altars — the idea is to remember those who have died, not worship them.
Lovingly constructed, the ofrendas are meant to welcome the spirits of relatives back to the world of the living. Atop the ofrendas you’ll almost always find a crucifix: Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country, after all. The Day of the Dead celebrations may date back to pre-Columbian times, but the ancient pagan rituals evolved to become a time to share memories and pray for the souls of departed relatives. The foundation of the shrine is papel picado, finely cut paper tissue typically laid over a white tablecloth. This colorful, chisel-cut decor is made in small shops throughout Mexico, its use dating back to an ancient tradition of placing fig-bark paper on altars to the dead. Movement of the paper is thought to symbolize the return of the spirits.
The oversized marigolds on the ofrendas are native to the highlands of central Mexico and still known by their Aztec name, cempasúchil (“twenty petalled flower”). The bright colors and pungent smell of the “flowers of the dead” are thought to guide the spirits back to the living world. Conversely, marigold petals scattered from the ofrendas to the gravesite are meant to lead the dead back to their place of rest when the festival concludes. The purifying copal incense left burning on the ofrendas is similarly intended as a guide for the spirits; the incense smoke is believed to carry aloft prayers for the dead.
The stepped layers of the ofrendas are adorned with candles, each representing a deceased loved one, along with favorite foods, water, and salt to symbolically nourish the souls returning for the celebration. Clothing and other items belonging to the dead may be incorporated into the ofrendas: seeing a toy, honoring a lost child, can be especially poignant. Day of the Dead food is not just for the dead, of course. The sweet Pan de Muerto — literally “dead bread” — is flavored with anise seeds and decorated with dough skulls and bones, the latter arranged to symbolize the circle of life. Dough teardrops are said to represent the Aztec goddess Chimalma’s tears for the living.
Sugar skulls called calavera, molded using traditional skills brought to Mexico by 17th century Italian missionaries, are placed on the ofrendas and also are eaten as part of Dia de Muertos celebrations.
This all may seem a little morbid, but the Day of the Dead actually more a festival of life than a time to mourn or fear death. Families gather not just to remember their ancestors, but to revel in humorous stories involving those who have passed on.
There’s even room for social commentary in the celebration: Mexican political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada’s 1947 etching of a catrina, an elegantly dressed female skeleton, was intended as a “literary calavera.” Now a common sight at Day of the Dead celebrations, the Calavera Garbancera was a wry poke at Mexican society’s emulation of European traditions, but carried a more portentous message, as well: no matter how rich or sophisticated we appear, underneath we are all skeletons, sharing the same ultimate destiny.