Every year, the hype surrounding Halloween seems to get bigger and bigger, but in many Mexican cultures, one of the season’s liveliest celebrations falls on November 1 and 2. Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, blends indigenous and Catholic influences, with the most traditional celebrations taking place in cemeteries in central Mexico. There, families gather at gravestones to honor deceased loved ones, but the tradition has become more popular in the U.S. as well, especially in places with thriving Latin American populations.
At the heart of the celebrations are ofrendas – altars or offerings of food, drink, and alcohol – which are believed to guide the spirits of the deceased back to Earth to spend time with their family and loved ones. Día de Los Muertos celebrations also include processions, musical performances, and tons of great, skeleton- and skull-inspired art – and, a refreshing break from the over-the-top commercialism of Halloween. What’s more, they’re almost always free, too. Here, five great places to get into the spirit of the Day of the Dead.
A free, four-day fete begins in NYC on Oct. 31 and runs through Nov. 3 at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Run by nonprofit Mano a Mano, anyone is welcome to join in the festivities, which include workshops for altar-building, paper flower making, bread baking, and poetry writing. Attendees are also encouraged to bring photos, candles, and flowers to adorn the public altar in honor of their loved ones. Or just drop in and enjoy the lively celebration, which also includes a dance procession and live music performances.
Since the 1970s, San Francisco’s lively Mission neighborhood has been home to dozens of touching and artistic tributes to lost ones – twinkling candles set against a wall of peace signs, collections of framed photos, elaborate skeleton-themed décor – during the Day of the Dead. Today, a more raucous party vibe pervades, with a procession that winds up Mission St (the full route is detailed here), trailing hundreds of spectators with skull-painted faces; but at its heart, the festival remains a spirited, family-friendly outing.
Another kid-friendly option on Nov. 2 is the Dia de los Muertos community concert by the San Francisco Symphony, featuring Latin-themed music, displays, and activities. Tickets start around $38, but children under 17 are free.
Now in its fourth year, the lively, free Day of the Dead Florida is expected to be its biggest yet, with a new downtown location in Fort Lauderdale and anticipated crowds of about 10,000. The action-packed schedule includes mariachi musicians, tons of skull-inspired art, live bands (like the one pictured above), and, new this year, interactive Mexican wrestlers, re-enactments of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and an exhibition of body art. Other highlights include a processional that winds down the Riverwalk, ofrendas throughout the city, and an “I’m Not Dead Yet” after party that runs into the wee hours.
Old Town, a charming neighborhood in San Diego, comes to life on Nov. 1-2 with Dia de Los Muertos: two days of fun, family-friendly (and mostly free) activities such as face-painting, skull-decorating, and live music. Shops and museums set up 50 festive altars, many dedicated to key historical figures in San Diego history, and local restaurants also offer food and drink specials. On Nov. 2, a candlelight procession (which is open to the public) winds through town at dusk, ending at El Campo Santo cemetery.
The artistic enclave of Oaxaca, Mexico is home to one of the country’s most vibrant Día de Los Muertos celebrations, with colorful marketplaces, vigils at cemeteries, and carnival-like processions called comparsas. For a truly authentic experience, consider heading to Xoxocotlan Cemetery, just outside of town, where on Oct. 31 many local families begin nightly vigils sitting beside the tombs of loved ones, waiting for their return. Or simply stroll the streets of town, which are packed with ofrendas.