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Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is an interesting holiday blending ancient Aztec, Spanish, and Catholic beliefs; and is not connected to Halloween. Celebrated on November 1st and 2nd in southern and central Mexico, an increasingly in the US, it coincides with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In Mexico it honors the dead who are believed to have celestial permission to return to visit loved ones from midnight to midnight, October 31 to November 2nd. The first day is reserved for “Angelitos” or departed children; and the next day for all other spirits to return. A celebration of the cycle of life and death, it honors the Christian belief in life after death. It acknowledges death as a part of life, and that everything passes in its time.

Many families make home “alteria” or “ofrenda” (altars) honoring their loved ones; and in traditional villages altars are found in every home. They are extravagantly decorated with candles, flowers (especially marigolds, and occasionally bright red cock’s comb), fruits, nuts, sweets, and drinks, and special “pan de muertos” – an egg bread made especially for the holiday.

Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls also adorn the altars. Not intended to be frightening, the skeletons are fun and whimsical – designed to poke fun at death. The more recent the death the more lavish the altar should be, and always should consist of what the departed loved most in life. For adults this might include tobacco, beer, or tequila, cakes and spicy foods – especially Mole made from chilies, chocolate, and over a dozen spices. Less spicy food is offered for children and more sweets, toys, and trinkets. Water, sodas, coffee, and hot chocolate are usually placed to quench the thirst of the dead; and a basin of water and clean linens are available to freshen up after the long journey from the afterlife. Candles need to be provided to provide warmth for the visitors, and a dish of salt – the spice of life – is provided as well.

In addition to altars; graveyards are cleaned, tidied-up, and adorned with marigolds. Many villages have processionals to gather the community at the cemeteries with singing, dancing, music, playing games, and cards to celebrate the dead. Marigolds are sometimes used to make a path from the grave site to the home for the departed to follow, while the scent of copal incense welcomes the spirits home.

On Dia de los Muertos, always greet your visitors with good cheer and a celebratory atmosphere, as it is believed that the dead consider it disrespectful to be greeted by grieving at the altar.