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On Mexico's Day of the Dead, papier-mache skeletons and marzipan mingle with flowered altars and candlelight vigils. While the event is recognized internationally, it takes its most splendid, macabre and joyful incarnation in the villages and towns across the region. Traveling on the first days of November makes for a ghostly and unique tour of Mexico, worthwhile for anyone looking to experience Halloween in a new light.
Ancient history, modern celebration
Mexico's mid-fall celebration of the dead is actually a multi-day affair, and draws its influences mainly from the Old World, but also the New. The macabre celebration dates back to the Aztecs who once ruled over the region. They held the belief that the dead existed in a middling state called Mictlan - what Lonely Planet describes as a "kind of spiritual waiting room" - and that once a year, spirits were able to return home. The celebrations are a means of welcoming the dead for a night.
Originally the event was held in the middle of the year, according to the Guardian, but Spanish colonists moved the event to coincide with the Catholic All Saints' Day. Today, the event is held over two nights, Nov. 1 and 2. The first day is known as the Dia de los Angelitos, and is dedicated to children who have passed, while the second is known as Dia de los Muertos, which coincides with the original date of All Saints' Day.
The images associated with the Day of the Dead are well-ingrained in popular culture - altars laden with orange flowers and hosts of candles, while candy, food and decorations take the playful shape of cartoonish skeletons. Those who have lost someone in the past year will cook the favorite food of that relative for a nighttime feast, where families gather for festivities. Picnics are held and people will dance in the streets. It is this interplay between the grievous and the celebratory that makes the event such a surreal experience.
Attending a vigil
While the event typically culminates in a trip to a cemetery, each community in Mexico has its own way of paying respects. Oaxaca, a city in southern Mexico, holds a competition for the best altars, which beckons local artists to set up intricate art pieces involving colored sawdust and large arrays of flowers. Those looking for a truly memorable Mexican tour should head to Lake Patzcuaro. There, villagers gather in the cemetery for an all-night vigil as boats take to the water with torches.
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