In our blog post Day of the Dead, a Celebration of Life and a Tribute to the Dead we already wrote about the meaning of this important and culturally rich holiday to Mexicans.
Day of the Dead in Mexico is a day of celebrations, not of mourning. It is said that six of every ten families visit the cemetery and the majority of them eat, drink and sing on the graves of their beloved who have passed away.
The Day of the Dead celebrations commonly take place on the festive days of November 1st and 2nd. On November 1st we honor children and infants; that is why this day is also called “Día de los Inocentes” (Day of the Innocents) or “Día de los Angelitos” (Day of the Little Angels); and on November 2nd we honor the deceased adults with the Day of the Dead or “Día de los Muertos”, or “Día de los Difuntos”.
Graves are adorned with flowers, and offerings are made throughout the two day long memorial period, when toys, candles, paper skeletons, and candy skulls are left at the gravesites. In Mexico each element of the altar has a symbolic and specific function: Candles – to guide the dead; Cempasuchitl flower – to symbolize light and glory; “Pan de Muerto” (Traditional sweet bread of Dia de los Muertos) – food and to remember the corporal remains; and Copal – to indicate solemnity and the openness to the mystic world.
This is how we prepare and decorate for celebrations of the Day of the Dead:
1. We visit the gravesites of your dearly departed to decorate their final resting place for Day of the Dead. Family and friends often gather together to place candles, photographs of their loved ones and flowers on the tombstone and around the site. You can bring to the grave the favorite food of your beloved one, and when family gathers, very often the musicians come to play his or her favorite music. Celebration of life!
2. Before decorating your home for Day of the Dead, you need to clean the entire house, including washing the windows. Then fill the house with Marigold flowers, which symbolize the shortness of life. Marigolds, or cempasuchitl as we know them (to mean “400 lives”), are the traditional flower to decorate with during the Day of the Dead.
3. Decorate your home and place of work with calaveras (colorful skulls, or sugar skulls) and handmade skeletons, known as Las Catrinas. Las Catrinas are doll-like figures that humorously characterize the appearance, hobbies and occupation of the deceased while he was living. It is also said that placing Las Catrinas about the home aids the spirit in finding the right house during Day of the Dead.
4. Create an altar to honor your deceased loves ones for Day of the Dead. The altar is a shrine consisting of three boxes placed in a pyramid fashion (representing the three levels of death*), all covered with a white cloth. Aside from decorating the altar with flowers, photographs of the deceased and calaveras, there are other traditional elements called for. A bowl of water is laid out to quench the thirst of the spirits, bread to nourish the soul and salt to season and purify the bread. A comb, mirror, soap and washing bowl are also included to allow the spirits to groom themselves during their brief visit. Decorate the feast table with traditional foods to welcome the spirits during Day of the Dead. This includes candied sugar skulls and Pan de Muertos, a coffee cake-like glazed bread often baked in the shape of a skull and/or crossbones.
*In Mexican tradition, Day of the Dead commemorates three levels of death, the first being physical death, the second being a return to the earth and the third occurring when no one living remains to remember the departed soul.
Source for some decoration details here.