If visitors know just one Mexican holiday, it’s probably the Day of the Dead, when families honour and remember those who have died. Actually taking place over two days, November 1 and 2, it’s an indigenous tradition unique to Mexico. With a few exceptions (such as the beautiful torch-lighting ceremony and festive dances around Lago de Pátzcuaro), it’s usually a private rite. In every home and many businesses people set up ofrendas (altars) for the deceased: the centrepiece is always a photograph, lit by candles. In addition to the photo, the person’s favourite foods are also placed on the altar, as a way of luring the soul back to this world. For the same reason, strong-scented, bright orange marigolds are often laid in a path leading to the altar, and resinous copal incense is lit.
On the streets, market stalls brim with eggy, orange-scented pan de muertos and colourfully iced sugar skulls. Families usually gather to eat dinner on the night of November 1, then visit gravesites, which are also cleaned and decorated. Far from being a sad time, the Day of the Dead is an occasion for telling funny stories, bonding with family and generally celebrating life.