Dí­a de los Muertos celebrations around the US

Skulls made of sugar, dancing skeletons in fancy dress, colorful masks decorated with flowers … these are all part of the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations that spring from deep in Mexican history. The Day of the Dead is not a scary holiday even though it takes place so close to Halloween. It’s a warm family celebration in honor of relatives and friends who have passed away. Each year, Mexican graveyards and home altars are decorated with gifts, food, and drinks left for the dead-toys, sweets, atole (a hot, tasty Mexican drink), tequila, and whatever other favorites might entice spirits to hear the prayers and remembrances held for them.

The right kind of flower is especially important. Marigolds — their petals sometimes scattered in paths from graveyards to homes — are thought to guide dead spirits back to the world of the living for a happy family reunion.

Although the dates for the Day of the Dead vary from place to place, November 1st is often the day honoring dead children, and while November 2nd is for adults. The tradition is thought to date back thousands of years to pre-Columbian times, and these days it continues not only throughout Mexico but in many United States communities as well. Wherever you might be traveling late in October or early in November, it’s well worth checking for a Día de los Muertos celebration. You’ll find wonderful food, music, performances, and parades. There’s usually a hands-on workshop or two where you can learn to make sugar skulls, puppets, papier mâché masks, traditional treats, and the lovely altars that families build in remembrance of the departed.

U.S. cities that celebrate the Day of the Dead include Seattle, Austin, El Paso, Phoenix, Houston, Santa Fe, Tucson, Missoula, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Cleveland, Longmont (Colorado), and many others around the country. The dates of these local fiestas vary, so check ahead. Here’s how the Día de los Muertos is honored in a few big cities…

New York City
New York City comes alive on the Day of the Dead with activities all over town. The world-famous Brooklyn Children’s Museum celebrates with puppet-making, Mayan hot chocolate, and other traditional treats on November 2. Free with museum admission.

Altar exhibits, mariachi performances, special treats, free workshops, and a Mexican Market are sponsored by Mano a Mano in the churchyard of St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery. Free and open to the public on October 29-31.

A Día de los Muertos art exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art runs from September 10 – December 13.

Family activities at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian include live entertainment, and hands-on crafts activities on October 30.

Washington D.C.
Everyone is invited to The Mexican Cultural Institute Día De Los Muertos Open House on October 31. The altars-dedicated this year to the Mexican Revolution-will be on display through the month of November.

A two-day celebration at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall offers demonstrations and hands-on crafts, live dance and music performances, films, and a display of Guatemalan kites on October 30-31.

On October 30 at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, you can view Day of the Dead themed artwork, listen to mariachis, and paint sugar skulls. In the evening, a parade of people-and-dogs-in-costume is led by Day of the Dead puppets. The evening culminates with a masquerade and dancing.

Los Angeles
Every Mexican community in LA has their own festivities, from family events at local cemeteries to neighborhood block parties. The one on Olvera Street, also known as El Pueblo Historic Monument, features altars, exhibits, entertainments, and a Pre-Columbian procession each night from October 25 through November 2.

The Hollywood Forever Cemetary, Los Angeles’s oldest memorial park, invites guests to their celebrations on October 30. The hosts suggest you come dressed as a calaca (traditional Day of the Dead skeleton).

All over L.A., theaters and clubs will offer special events, and popular celebrations are also held in San Pedro, Pasadena, and other local communities.

San Francisco
This year San Francisco got started early with installations at the SOMArts Cultural Center on Friday October 15. The exhibit ends with a closing reception on November 6.

On November 2, the Mission District, the center of San Francisco’s predominantly Hispanic community, is the place to be for traditional Día de los Muertoscelebrations. You’ll find workshops on creating altars, sugar skulls, and papel picado (decorative Mexican paper cutting) at the Mission Cultural Center, Casa Bonampak, and Encantada Art Gallery. A festival of altars is held at Garfield Park, and you can join an annual procession led by the Rescue Culture Collective.

Pat Perrin spent years training horses on a Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, farm. Her diverse books include the historical novel Anna’s World, set in late 1840s America. Read her blog on Red Room.

[Photos: Flickr | uteart_away.picking.seashells; sfmission.com; -Chupacabras-]