Though they occupy the same date on the calendar, Halloween and Día de Muertos are very different celebrations.
The latter, a traditional Mexican holiday (often called Día de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” stateside), celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed away. Its hallmarks might include bright flowers, home altars, special foods and graveyards visits.
Unlike Halloween, there is very little by the way of morbidity and horror. Instead of big parties, one might see reverent home altars decorated with little sugar skulls and sweets in the image of the departed’s favorite foods. (Marigolds and terciopelo, a crushed-velvet like flower, might make cameos along with little sugar tacos, for example.)
It’s a holiday of remembrance, a day when the living consider themselves closer to those who have passed. People paint their faces in the image of La Catrina, the iconic lady skeleton of Mexico. Home visits tend to be quiet and reverent, but joyful. Depending on where you are in the country, there might be colorful parades and processions, or visits to graves to clean them and remember quietly.
Día de Muertos shows up more frequently than ever in the USA these days, right down to Disney movies and “Day of the Dead” Barbies. There are a few ways you can pay homage to loved ones and the holiday itself in a way that is true to its spirit.
1. Create a Home Altar
The home altar is a key part of the celebration. Yours might be covered with sugary treats, sugar skulls, a beautiful illustrated table runner, and a bevy of flowers. Look for papel picado, the cut paper typical of Mexico, at 99-cent stores and Mexican specialty shops, and string it up around your altar. Consider adding framed photos of your loved one, as well.
2. Serve Pan de Muerto and Hot Chocolate
People do visit one another’s homes during this holiday, which spans several days, and depending on where you are in Mexico, you might tuck into pan de muerto, “bread of the dead,” an orange-flavored pastry. Or mole negro, a labor-intensive mole typical of the Oaxaca region. Or atole, a masa drink often served alongside tamales. We’re partial to any sort of Mexican hot chocolate, which tends to be spiked with fragrant, robust cinnamon. It’s particularly tasty in this sous-vide Mexican chocolate ice cream.
Skulls, or calaveras, play a major role in the holiday, whether in the traditional face makeup, sculptures hoisted by folks in parades, or sugar skulls. Break out placemats and mugs, candy bowls and platters, or one of our several other Day of the Dead-inspired tableware items.
Sweets are a big part of this tradition, and these oversized sugar cookies are a delight. Best of all, you can just click to order them, keeping your eye on celebrating your ancestors and not making yourself crazy by trying to do everything yourself.
Among its many charms is the fact that Día de Muertos is a colorful holiday. Bright colors are not frowned upon; they’re anticipated. Cover your porch with flowers; make bright homemade papel picado; serve ornate skull cookies; have salad on plates festooned with skulls and flowers. The holiday may have a touch of solemnity, but it is a vibrant tribute to those gone and those still here alike.