First inhabited more than 10,000 years ago, the cultures that developed in Mexico became one of its cradles of civilisation. The result of a gradual blending of native Mesoamerican culture with Spanish traditions alongside other immigrant customs, Mexico’s traits and practices, often based on familial ties, gender, religion, location and social class, form part of its national identity. Its most prominent tradition is the colourful Day of the Dead public holiday (Día de los Muertos), which is celebrated throughout Mexico and the Catholic world, including Italy, Spain, South America and the Philippines, and marks All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on 1 and 2 November, respectively. But it is only in central and southern Mexico, where the indigenous people have combined the religious festival with their own ancient beliefs of remembering the lives of their deceased loved ones, where colourful parties take place in the cemeteries, along with elaborate ‘ofrenda’ altars built in the homes to honour specific family members who have passed on.
Not to be confused with Halloween, the belief is that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on 31 October, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are reunited with their families for 24 hours. On 2 November, the adult spirits come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them. Many families invest over two months’ income on honouring their dead relatives, in the belief that happy spirits provide protection, good luck and wisdom.
The beautiful altars are decorated with candles, buckets of wild orange marigolds called cempasúchil (often referred to as ‘flor de muerto’, meaning flower of the dead) and bright red cockscombs. Mounds of fruit, peanuts and plates of turkey mole are stacked up next to tortillas and large, sweet breads called ‘pan de muerto’. The altar requires lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits, while toys and sweets are left for the angelitos. On 2 November, cigarettes and shots of mezcal, tequila or pulque are offered to the adult spirits.
The final touches to the altars are provided by small folk-art skeletons and sugar skulls purchased at open-air markets. Representing a departed soul, sugar skulls have the name written on the forehead and are placed on the home ofrenda or gravestone to honour the return of a particular spirit. Reflecting Mexico’s folk art style of big happy smiles, colourful icing and sparkly tin and glittery adornments, sugar skulls are hugely labour intensive and are made in small batches in the homes of independent artisans. Captivating and striking, the skull or ‘calavera’ has become a common symbol of the holiday, which celebrants represent with masks and elaborate make-up. The most popular calavera is ‘La Calavera Catrina’, a high-society skeleton lady dressed in a fancy floral hat from a 1910 etching by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. She has become the most iconic representation of Day of the Dead, but it was the striking opening to the 2015 James Bond film, Spectre, that put Mexico’s inspiring celebrations on the world stage.
Set to a backdrop of huge cigar-smoking skeletons and Aztec headdresses atop large floats, a skeleton tuxedo-wearing 007 chases a villain through Mexico City’s historic downtown district while thousands of revellers enjoy a wild Day of the Dead parade. Currently, most tourists seeking out a Day of the Dead experience head for intimate experiences in rural indigenous communities in states such as Michoacán, but in October 2016, Mexico City held its first ever Day of the Dead parade along its main Reforma Avenue, which tourism officials confirmed was inspired by the opening scenes in Spectre.