In the US Halloween is all about being afraid of the dead coming back to harm the living. But in South and Central America they celebrate the dead at the end of October and beginning of November instead of being afraid of the dead. The Day of the Dead is actually a two day festival that is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd each year. Often the celebrations begin the night before, on October 31st. In the Catholic faith November 1st and 2nd are All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Both of those days are set aside to honor those who have died especially family members. Most of South and Central America are Catholic so The Day of the Dead festival is national celebration for most countries in those regions.
Many cultures revere their dead but few celebrate the lives and accomplishments of their dead loved ones the way that these cultures do. In Mexico is it common for people to build altars in their homes to pay tribute to their family members who have died. They place pictures, small tokens, flowers and other offerings on the altar. They say prayers for the souls of their loved ones and invite those who have died to return to celebrate the holiday with them. While in North American Halloween is a time for fear and dread of the dead in Mexico the last day of October and the first couple of days in November are a time to celebrate. Families will sometimes even wear the clothes of their deceased family members to honor them.
Food is a huge part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. Offerings of special foods like sugar skulls and drinks of tequila and other alcoholic beverages. Pan de Muerto, the “ bread of the dead” is a holiday favorite. It’s a sweet bread that is usually shaped like a skeleton or bones and covered in a richly sweet frosting. The favorite foods of the people who have died are also placed on the altars. Bright orange marigolds, which are said to attract the dead, are placed on the altars and on the graves of people that have died. People also wear marigolds and scatter them around their homes hoping to welcome the spirits of their loved ones.
Instead of viewing graveyards as ghoulish places to be avoided on the Day of the Dead people will often visit the graves of the people they love. Some people will bring sleeping bags and sleep next to the graves. Others bring chairs and tables and picnic near the graves. They will also clean up the gravesites by weeding, planting flowers, placing offerings, and doing any other necessary maintenance. Often they will tell funny or memorable stories about their deceased loved ones as they work.
The most famous symbol of the Day of the Dead is the image of a Calavera, a skull. The ornately decorated sugar skulls popular on the Day of the Dead are an instantly recognizable symbol of the celebration of loved ones who have passed away.