Celebrating the Day of the Dead
Last month we introduced you to some of our favorite Mexican artists, and today we’re putting the spotlight on Mexico once again to tell you about one of its most important public holidays - el Día de Muertos, which takes place over 2 days every 1st and 2nd November each year.
The origins of this festival are disputed by the academic community and it’s not clear whether it was originally an Aztec tradition or connected to the All Saints Day and All Souls Day celebrations which are observed in Catholic countries. However, we can be sure that there’s no connection between el Día de Muertos and Halloween, a pagan tradition which began in Northern Europe and later spread to the USA in the 19th century. It’s common for people living other Hispanic Catholic countries to remember lost relatives at this time of year, although their holidays may bear different names and involve similar, but slightly different traditions to the Mexican celebration.
Symbols and traditions of el Día de Muertos
While the name might sound a little morbid and macabre, the atmosphere during el Día de Muertos festival is actually a very positive one. It’s a bittersweet combination of honoring lost loved ones, while simultaneously celebrating life and the role that death plays in it. Here are some typical customs that you might observe during the celebration...
OFRENDAS
(offerings to the dead)
Much of the day is spent in cemeteries so that people can spend time with the dead, remembering them and sharing stories about them so that the departed souls can ‘join in’. People clean the graves of relatives, decorating them with altars upon which they place photos, food, drinks and objects which were important to those they have lost.
CEMPASÚCHIL
(Mexican Marigold)
The bright orange marigold is sometimes referred to as the Flor de Muerto, as they are believed to attract the souls of the dead to the offerings that have been made on account of their bold petals and strong scent. The Nāhuatl name for this flower is cempōhualxōchitl, which literally translates as ‘twenty flowers’.
Pan de Muerto
(Bread of the dead)
Food and drink are a huge part of the festival, but a couple of foods in particular play a prominent role. Pan de muerto is a sweet bread shaped like a bun, often decorated with bone-shaped pieces for the dead and a teardrop to represent the goddess Chīmalmā's tears for the living. The bones are arranged in a circle, to represent the circle of life. Some people believe that the spiritual essence of the food is consumed by the spirits - people eat the bread after the festivities, but believe that it no longer has any nutritional value.
CALACAS Y CALAVERAS
(Skeletons and Skulls)
During this holiday there are skeletons and skulls everywhere! People dress up in elaborate costumes, masks and paint their faces. Women also dress as Catrinas, a specific type of calavera which represents a wealthy, well-dressed woman from the early 20th century. You may also see edible calaveras made out of sugar (alfeñiques) and chocolate ones too.
Lila Downs • Zapata se queda
While the name might sound a little morbid and macabre, the atmosphere during el Día de Muertos festival is actually a very positive one. It’s a bittersweet combination of honoring lost loved ones, while simultaneously celebrating life and the role that death plays in it. Here are some typical customs that you might observe during the celebration...

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