All Hallows Day in America may be overshadowed by costumes, trick-or-treating and jack o’ lanterns the night before, but let’s not forget why zombies and ghosts fill the streets on Halloween. Celebrated on November 1st, this Christian ritual, also known as All Saints Day, honors those who have attained saintliness in heaven. The following day, known as All Souls Day, commemorates the departed who have yet to reach heaven and remain trapped in purgatory. When the Spaniards arrived in Peru in the 16th century, they brought these rituals with them. The Incas always maintained a strong connection with their deceased ancestors, offering them gifts and requesting assistance, so the ideas behind All Saints Day and All Souls Day were easily absorbed. To this day, the Peruvian celebration of these rituals, known as Dia de los Difuntos, “Day of the Deceased,” focuses on departed ancestors and their indelible connection to those living on earth.
In Peru, the celebration is rooted in the belief that the souls of deceased relatives visit earth on this day. It is the family’s duty to ensure that plenty of food is available for these departed souls in order to fuel their journey in the afterlife. In more rural areas, families may share their meal on the grave of the deceased relative and leave some behind, while in other areas, families will simply bring food or flowers to the grave. Either way, lively music is likely to fill the air, along with the smells of roasted pig, the most traditional food to enjoy on Dia de los Difuntos.
In addition to the roast pig, you’ll likely find “bread babies,” or Tanta Wawas, filling gravesites, decorating the dinner table and entertaining children. Tanta Wawas are made from a brioche-like dough usually in the shape of a baby, to signify the beginning of the life cycle. It’s common in some regions to find horse-shaped Wawas or even staircases, both of which are meant to assist an ancestor in their journey from earth to the other realm.
Since the focus is on remembering the dead as they were when living, Peruvian graves are a live “scrapbook” of the deceased. Often, the grave will be gifted with the favorite food or drink of the deceased–it’s not uncommon to spot a beer, a soda or even a bottle of pisco inside the framed glass enclosures that mark an individual’s grave in Peru. These glass enclosures are a window into the life of the deceased. Even as a stranger from another country, you can get the sense of how someone lived, what they liked and who they were from the meaningful display in front of their grave.