Usually mistaken for Halloween, Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration held over two days; November 1st – November 2nd, the same days as All Saints Day and All Souls Day in Christianity. Although the symbolism of skulls relates well to Halloween, the two-day celebration is a time for remembering and celebrating the life of loved ones who have passed. However, many people do dress up in Day of the Dead costumes for Halloween. ‘Dia de la Muertos’ or otherwise known as, ‘Day of the Dead’, is traditionally full of colour, music, food and festivities.
The Day of the Dead originated from when the Spanish came to Mexico and with them, they introduced Catholicism. The roots of the Day of the Dead go back around 3,000 years whereby pre-Columbian Mesoamerica honoured the dead by performing rituals and the Aztecs saw death as an ever-present part of life. The Spanish would bring wine and ‘spirit bread’ to their loved one’s graves. They then blended their beliefs and traditions to create their own customs. They all considered that mourning the dead was considered disrespectful so therefore turned it into a yearly celebration. To this day, Mexican’s from all religions come together to celebrate the indigenous life.
In 2008, it was officially classed as a ‘National Holiday’ thanks to the dedication from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). They began to understand it as a means to face death and the deceased and not just a fancy-dress street party.
The festivities start on the night of October 31st and November 1st when families would gather at their deceased graves, place flowers and light candles to guide them back to Earth. On the 31st, it is the night where the children come back from the Land of the Dead and then on the night of November 1st, it’s the adults turn. The deceased are welcomed home to an altar of all their favourite things and photographs and are treated like honoured guests. There are no tears or mourning allowed on these days, only celebrations, singing and laughter!
It is on the afternoon of November 2nd when the fun festivities begin! Families play games, dance while the band plays outside, they laugh, sing and dance into the night. It is believed that on the November 1st and November 2nd, the passageway from the spirit world to the real world is opened, and therefore our deceased loved ones can return for a day full of celebration with their families.
To help bring their loved ones back from the dead, they would arrange a variety of ofrendas, meaning offerings around an altar to the dead such as; photographs, other personal belongings, candles, food and lots of flowers, traditionally marigolds. This is the central piece to the ceremony which is typically built into private homes.
The symbolism of the skulls is far from grim. La Catrina is the iconic symbol of the Day of the Dead. La Catrina is a tall female skeleton wearing a fancy hat with feathers. This came from the satirical drawing to remind people to be themselves because no matter what you look like or the colour of their skin, we will all look like skeletons in the end. Many visitors purchase small statues dressed like skeletons with flowers and feathers on their hats and bring them home as souvenirs from Mexico.
Traditionally you would expect to paint your face like a skeleton and then they would decorate it with glitter, beads, flowers and have huge smiles. They would also wear fancy suits and dresses, occasionally with noise-making items to, so-say, keep the dead close during the fun. In towns and cities across Mexico, people would wear these costumes and makeup and hold parades and parties, and sing and dance! They would spill out onto the streets bringing with them the joy and laughter.
Traditional Day of the Dead food is eaten at this celebration as well, such as el Pan de Muerto, meaning the Bread of the Dead. This is a sweet bread decorated with either a skull or crossbones. Families will usually bake one themselves for the occasion and most of the traditional foods are homemade. Other food and drink are made such as marigold tortillas and marigold tequila. Marigolds are a traditional flower in the Day of the Dead as they are thought to guide the spirits back with their intense colour and smell. Marigolds are widely used in the celebration for example, to decorate altars, hats, clothing as well as in recipes.
Sugar skulls are also made and decorated similarly to the face paint and make-up applied to the face. They are pressed into skull-shaped moulds and then decorated with edible sugar paste, paint and beads and their loved one’s name. This is then taken to the grave on the last day of the holiday, November 2nd.
Decorations include papel picado, a traditional paper garland used to decorate homes and altars. Papel picado means ‘Punched’ or ‘perforated’ paper and is usually displayed in a range of bright colours and patterns.
The film’s that you may have seen feature Day of the Dead references include, the opening sequence of Spectre, the 2015 James Bond film. As well as the Disney Pixar movie, Coco, which heavily follows the traditions of the Day of the Dead.
Unfortunately, we are unable to visit Mexico at this current period, therefore, witnessing this wonderful celebration for yourselves will have to be on hold for another year or so. However, you can still celebrate the Day of the Dead in the comfort of your own home with music, traditional food, costumes, makeup and lots of your family members! Lots of people dress up in Day of the Dead costumes on Halloween which is a great idea. However, it is always a good idea to understand the history of the celebration and the outfit before dressing up.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead authentically is a lovely way to bring the family back together after the unusual year we have had so far. Especially if you may have lost someone during the pandemic, adopting this celebration may be just what is needed. With laughter, dancing, singing, reminiscing on good memories and eating traditional Day of the Dead foods, this is a celebration of their life with no tears to dampen spirits.