It began as a three-day festival in Southern and Central Mexico and has spread around the world. Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations now take place throughout Central and South America, the Philippines, and locales as far away from Mexico as Massachusetts, New Zealand, and the Czech Republic.
Pre-Columbian cultures have held rituals celebrating their ancestors for perhaps 2500 years. On the Aztec calendar, the festival that morphed into the modern Day of the Dead celebration fell during the summer and lasted a month. After Spanish colonization of the New World in the 16th century, the festival became associated on the Christian calendar with Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, aka Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. It is now a national holiday in Mexico, designed to be a unifying tradition among the nation’s various cultures.
The point is to celebrate deceased friends and family members and support their spiritual journey as they awaken temporarily to enjoy the festivities along with the living. Bones abound.
Colorful and elaborate skeletal displays, especially skulls, are evident in parades, costumes, shrines, and tomb decorations. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is embellished with twisted bones made from white frosting. Calaveras (sugar skull candies) are decorated to represent the unique personalities of the departed. A box can be on your doorstep tomorrow when you order from Amazon Prime.
Mexico City was a late comer to the idea of a Día de Muertos parade, starting with a staged one in 2015. It formed the opening scene for the James Bond movie Spectre. The heart-pounding opening scene lasts about eight minutes and shows Daniel Craig destroying a custom-tailored suit amidst gunfire and collapsing buildings; but if you want to focus on dancing bones and skeletons, watch between minutes three and five.
Following that publicity, Mexicans were so taken with the idea of a Day of the Dead parade that they held a bona fide one the next year, which 250,000 people attended. Atlantic magazine just this week posted an array of stunning photographs taken in anticipation of Mexico City’s 2019 merrymaking.
The Los Angeles offerings are centered at Olvera Street and include art exhibits, elaborate altars, and parades extending over nine days. Several cemeteries host elaborate altar-making contests with the winners walking away with $5000 prizes. See seventeen of the region’s top festivities here.
Day of the Dead celebrations are opportunities to celebrate life and remember those who did so previously. And for Angelenos, it’s another chance to get in costume. I joined the festivities last year and absorbed the culture on Olvera Street. Afterwards I rode the Metro home. Nobody on the train batted an eye.