Treats, not tricks, among Day of the Dead traditions

By Gay Nagle Myers
Day of the Dead altarPumpkins and witch costumes, synonymous with Halloween, pale by comparison with the elaborateness of Mexico City's traditional Day of the Dead celebrations.

The holiday celebrations take place on Nov. 1, which is the Roman Catholic feast of All Saints Day, and Nov. 2, All Souls Day, during which family and friends gather to remember departed loved ones.

The Day of the Dead, despite its somewhat gruesome name, is a cheerful celebration and, much like Halloween in the U.S., is a favorite of kids in Mexico, who dress in costume and pocket lots of treats.

It's the time of year when the souls of the deceased are said to return to their homes, welcomed by relatives to eat their favorite foods, dance and otherwise join in the festivities.

Traditions include candlelight ceremonies in cemeteries under night skies, where families decorate burial plots with sugar skulls and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed.

Evening street festivals feature mariachi musicians and pre-Hispanic dances by costumed locals in memory of their loved ones.

Family altars hold photos, Mexican candies, tequila and sugar statues.

Markets are filled with the Aztec marigold cempasuchil flower, used to guide the souls to their homes and altars.

Day of the Dead burial plotsAll over Mexico, bakeries offer pan de muerto, a bread made with flour, butter, sugar, eggs, orange peel, anise and yeast. Atop the loaf, crisscrossing strips of dough represent bones, and a small, round piece of dough represents a teardrop.

These breads are placed on the altars, or ofrendas, and are also taken to the tombs in the graveyard.

Traditional ceremonies take place in Mexico City's Zocalo, the central plaza, where residents and university students adorn the main altar with flowers and play sacred music, stage performances and read poetry.

The Tianguis del Dia de Muertos, a large market with dancers, flower stalls and local arts and crafts, is held in Xochimilco, an area known as the Venice of Mexico City.

The bohemian-inspired neighborhood of Coyoacan features a holiday market where residents and visitors dress in costumes for an evening street festival on Nov. 2.

Catrina, an elegant and iconic female skeleton created by artists Jose Guadeloupe Posada and Diego Rivera, is the most popular costume of the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Although Mexico City is the cornerstone of the two-day celebrations, the holiday takes center stage throughout much of Mexico.

Many hotels, not only in Mexico City but also in the resort areas, offer special rates and package deals.

Day of the Dead at nightFestivities in the Riviera Maya run from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2. Playa del Carmen, the region's main beach town and a hip, hot center of restaurants, bars, clubs and nightlife, sets the tone.

Xcaret, the eco-cultural family theme park four miles south of Playa, offers a Life and Death Festival each year with traditional food, art, music, contests and shows.

Condo Hotels Playa del Carmen, the beachfront resort in Playa that includes Villas Sacbe, Porto Playa, Maya Villa, El Taj Beachside and the new El Taj Oceanfront, offers a 40% discount on all bookings on regular rates for travel by Nov. 3.

Guests staying seven nights get a 50% discount. Regular rates start at $160 per night for a studio unit.

Each unit offers a kitchen; each condo has a pool. The five properties total 100 rooms and share facilities including babysitters, two restaurants, a gym, a spa and a beach club. Visit www.condohotelsplayadelcarmen.com.  

For Caribbean and Mexico news, follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 
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