Sergio, our travel guide, was nervous. He wanted to take advantage of the respite from a heavy rainfall, but at 9 p.m. it was still somewhat early for our visit. Would we be able to see anything yet? Would people have gathered already? Our driver pulled into a muddy corner of the grounds surrounding the cemetery, but we could not look over the eight-foot brick fence. As we piled out of the van into the muck, making our way past knots of people into the cemetery, the magic of this special night unfolded before our eyes.
Here were thousands of lighted candles flickering across an acre of land, mounds of bright yellow marigolds turned into flowery arches marking gravesites with more forming blankets on graves, and hundreds of family members hovering or sitting near the burial grounds of their loved ones. It was hushed and beautiful, otherworldly. This night of Mexico's Day of the Dead is a uniquely cultural celebration of those who have died.
History of the Celebration
El dia de los muertos, or Day of the Dead, is really a two-day celebration spanning November 1, Christianity's All Saint's Day, and November 2, All Souls' Day. But Day of the Dead is more closely related to Halloween and has the influences of the region's distant past. According to the ritual of the Aztec tradition, the death ceremony began at the moment an individual died. Offerings of the deceased's favorite foods, drinks and other objects were assembled to help him travel to the other world. When Catholicism was introduced in Mexico, it merged with this Indian tradition, resulting in the contemporary rituals associated with Day of the Dead.
The first night of the celebration is specifically for the families who have lost children. While many parents decorate their children's graves, many others create altars or ofrendas in their homes. These are often tables draped with colorful cloths upon which are placed photographs of the deceased along with their toys, candy and sweets, and other cherished objects. These familiar items are thought to lure the angelitos, or souls of the dead children, back once each year.
The next day families begin to decorate the graves of other relatives in preparation for the evening vigil. This is the main night of Day of the Dead and loved ones gather at dusk, their work complete, to begin their hours of remembrance, which often last until dawn.
Nearly every cemetery in Mexico is host to families honoring their dead. However, some locations are particularly noted for their celebrations. One of these is Pátzcuaro, a colonial city in the southwestern state of Michoacán nestled on the shores of a lake, which bears its name.
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