Intrigued by Day of the Dead? What You Need to Know and Where to Celebrate

The ancient Mexican tradition that brings us skulls, marigolds and sweet bread.

October 25, 2012, 2:21 PM

Oct. 26, 2012— -- I live for Dia de los Muertos. This festive celebration combines my two favorite holidays: Halloween and Christmas. I know what you're thinking:"Sugar skulls and the birth of Christ? How can these two events possibly have anything in common?"

Well, they do. For starters, Mexicans have been honoring Day of the Dead, (or All Souls Day and All Saints Day as it's also known by Catholics) for thousands of years. It's based on two principles in particular: One, it celebrates the lives of people who've passed away by luring them with gifts so they return to visit us; and two, it's about reminiscing with friends and family, among brightly-colored decorations such as luminous marigolds, strands of hanging papel picado, and ornate calacas (spirited skeletons).

Mainstream America, and the general public worldwide for that matter, have taken on this ancient Mexican tradition and repurposed it to include all the Day of the Dead staples (such as vigil processions to-and-from cemeteries), while also incorporating new customs such as hosting art exhibitions with a theme that corresponds to the holiday.

Because Day of the Dead, which takes place on November 2nd, follows Halloween, some people might conclude that Dia de los Muertos is an evil holiday in which Mexicans praise death. Couldn't be further from reality, as we rejoice the lives of those we love and who are no longer on Earth. We also celebrate with huge parties to give thanks to our own lives and those who are still around us. While I see Halloween as a time to dress up like characters in horror films, Day of the Dead for me is like going back in time in which I remember the past while also dressing up in traditional Mexican dresses and rebozos.

Ultimately, the heart of Dia de los Muertos — for me, anyway — involves cherishing more time with my parents as they recall memories of grandparents that I never met while we clean their tombstones and place flowers and pan dulce atop.

When I'm not partaking in these festivities in Mexico, I still bring the spirit of the holiday into my own home. I always create an altar and place personal keepsakes, candles, candy, and milagros, miracle tokens that reflect wishes and prayers). Full disclosure: I even have an altar at work year round!

Glorifying death might seem a tad morbid to those not familiar with the holiday, but Day of the Dead brings the advent of death to light, making the concept of "the end" less scary.

It's during this time that I can share my affinity for Mexican culture and tradition with other Day of the Dead devotees, as well as with newcomers. As you can see, our holiday traditions are all relative. Merry Day of the Dead!

Check out our nifty Day of the Dead national event guide:

Los Angeles, CA

OCT. 25-NOV 1- Dia de los Muertos at La Placita Olvera: One of the oldest streets in Los Angeles and a popular Mexican marketplace is hosting a slew of events including Azteca dancers, mariachi music, children's workshops, community altars, art exhibits and more.

OCT. 25-26 - What's scarier than kids dressing up as the Twilight cast? Mexican masked wrestlers. Lucha VaVOOM will get in the ring alongside sexy ladies and stand-up comedy. Just like a Quentin Tarantino film!

NOV. 2 - Eastside Luv, a beloved wine bar in the area, presents their 7th annual Dia De Los Dead hosted by the Culture Clash's Richard Montoya, Alexis De La Rocha of Beatmo & MorrisseyOke. The evening should be a stellar one which includes music performances by Ceci Bastida, among others, Johnny Vatos Boingo Dance Party featuring former members of Oingo Boingo, a DJ set by Gil Cerezo of Kinky and much more. Also, Day of the Dead face paint is highly suggested!

Boyle Heights, CA

OCT. 25-DEC. 1- 39th annual Self Help Graphics Dia de los Muertos Celebration: During this Community Altar Night participants are invited to contribute to altars on display by placing special tokens of remembrance, and the night also includes poetry readings and pan de muerto. At 6, Oct. 27. Self Help Graphics will also host a group art exhibition titled Memories That Never Die from Oct. 25-Dec.1. From 5 to 11 pm, Nov. 2 guests are invited to dress up in calaca attire and partake in the traditional ceremonial blessing and enjoy musical performances, face painting, children's workshop, food and craft vendors.

Hollywood, CA

OCT. 27 - At Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where the famous dead call home, enjoy the 13th annual Dia de los Muertos that includes a costume contest, ceremonial altar set-up, while exploring the pre-Aztec roots, rituals of this holiday. Special musical guest will be Ozomatli.

San Diego, CA

NOV. 1-2 Old Town San Diego's Dia de los Muertos celebrates the rich history of the area with arts & crafts, altar-building, music, food, a candlelight procession, and more.

San Francisco, CA

ENDS NOV.10 - Calling on the Spirits to Face the Future is SOMArts' annual Dia de los Muertos art group exhibition show. Each year more than 70 artists build elaborate installation altars that in the past have dealt with contemporary issues like health care, presidential election, and neighborhood violence.

NOV. 2 - One of the most spirited events in the Bay Area is the San Francisco Day of the Dead Procession and Festival of Altars, which invites guests to dress up in their favorite Dia de los Muertos garb, and walk through the historic streets of the Mission District.

Portland, OR

NOV.2 - At the Roots Salon gather for the 4th annual Dia de los Muertos to celebrate both life and death through building altars with sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite food and drinks of those who have died.

Seattle, WA

OCT. 27-28 - Dia de Muertos: A Mexican Celebration to Remember Our Departed explores the cultural roots of Mexico through live performances, sand paintings, hands-on activities, food vendors, face painting, arts and crafts, and a musical procession.

Chicago, IL

OCT. 28- NOV. 11 - The National Museum of Mexican Art is hosting Hanal Pixán: Food For The Soul Exhibit featuring sugar skull demonstrations, installations, and works of art created by "Mexican artists from both sides of the border, [that] invites visitors to celebrate life by glimpsing death."

OCT. 26 - The ARTango Center Chicago presents their 4th Annual Halloween Party with live music by Alejandro Ziegler Quartet from Buenos Aires. Surely dancing will bring the spirits out!

OCT. 26 - Casa Ciudad de Mexico will host Dia de Muertos and features "Pintoras Mexicanas," a group of female Mexican painters and will pay tribute to important historical figures like Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington.

Corpus Christi, TX

NOV. 2 - The 5th annual Dia de los Muertos block party is major party in downtown Corpus Christi and includes art, piñatas, folklorico dancers, a community altar, costumes, dancing, food and lots of live music performances.

Houston, TX

NOV. 3 - The 25th annual Dia de los Muertos event at the Lawndale Art Center includes an extensive group art exhibition through Nov. 10. The Community Ofrenda allows guests to bring personal items and add them to the community altar, through Nov. 10. At the Musical Ofrenda the ROCO chamber group and Musiqa will present short original contemporary musical offering to those who have died, at 5:30 pm, Oct. 30. The Family Day Fiesta guests of all ages can partake in cutting papel picado, decorating sugar skulls, and enjoy performances by Houston Grand Opera, Mixteco Ballet Folklorico, and Paedarchy Puppets.

Las Vegas, NV

OCT. 27-NOV.2 - The FAT Village ARTS District, located in downtown Fort Lauderdale, is going all out for its Day of the Dead celebration. The event will include "Nocturnes," a fine art exhibit, live music, a circus performance, indie craft vendors, body painting, an art walk, and community altars. 504 NW First Avenue, 954-560-1028.

Miami, FL

OCT. 29 - Halloween clowns? Spooky! Carnevil 2012 is just what it sounds like, circus meets evil, and features flying aerialists and acrobats with stilt walkers and dwarfs, among dancers and contortionists.

OCT. 27 - This Halloween House Party isn't like the ones you have at home unless your iPod can magically produce live performances by Sueñalo, Jahfe, DJ Ethics and DJ Gil. Didn't think so.

Washington DC

OCT. 31- NOV. 2 - Smithsonian Dia de los Muertos Festival will celebrate Dia de los Muertos as a 3D experience in their the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum which illustrates the customs and beliefs varying from ancient Mesoamerica to those currently practiced in today's Latino culture. The museum will also host a poetry and open mic, music by Lila Downs, La Santa Cecilia, among others, drumming workshops, mural art creation, live webcast from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a meso-ball game tournament, and a costume contest. There will also be a special ofrenda dedication to actress Lupe Ontiveros, singer Chavela Vargas, and artist Carlos Alfonso.

Denver, CO

ENDS NOV.3 - El Dia de los Muertos: A Celebration of Life Community Celebration Event will be an evening of face painting, piñata breaking, traditional Aztec Dancers, traditional Mexican refreshments (pan de muertos, and Mexican hot chocolate!), a procession, and an art exhibition.

Manhattan, NY

NOV.1-4 - For four days Mano a Mano, the organization that explores Mexican culture in the United States and promotes the understanding of Mexican traditions, will host a slew of Day of the Dead events at St. Mark Church. Events include a procession through the Village streets with an ancient ritual blessing of the community altar, as well as workshops on Mexican paper crafts, musical presentations by Mariana Ramírez y Diana Malgrejo: Mexican Marimba Duet on Saturday and Mariachi Flor de Toloache on Sunday, and a ton of food and crafts for sale, which is the best part.

NOV. 2 - Hecho en Dumbo, New York's trendy Mexican hotspot and restaurant, will host a Dia de los Muertos costume party at their adjacent establishment Salón Hecho, featuring music by Los Master Plus, from Guadalajara, and Joro Boro.

OCT. 26 - ¡WEPA! HallowWHITE: Celebrating Souls is giving Day of the Dead and Halloween a twist with this "White Party" after the ¡WEPA! group visited Mexico. It was there they learned about Dia de los Muertos and realized they "shared a mutual strong reverence for those who have passed, and of course, las ganas de celebrar!" That's what it's all about.

Brooklyn, NYNOV. 2 - Celebrate Sunset Park's 2nd Dia de los Muertos exhibit that invites guests to partake in creating the community's altar with your own personal items that can include framed pictures, flowers, candy, food, cigarettes, drinks, or whatever your passed loved one preferred in their living life.

OCT. 31 - Bembe, the club where wild things always happen, so it's fitting that they host a Masquerade party. Costumes are highly encouraged. Music includes sets by DJ Beto and WHO AM I.