As humans, we’ll all die at some point — that’s just the cycle of life. Today, we’re not going grim, but we’ll have to acknowledge this fact. Most cultures around the world envision death as a dark, evil, and terrifying experience; and often mourn when a loved one is demise. However, would you ever be happy for the loss of thousands of souls as a celebration? That’s exactly what happens in Mexico, and several Latin American countries: The celebration of death as a cultural festival in honor of their departed souls. Dear friends, when is Día de los Muertos?
Related media: What Is Day Of The Dead?
The Day Of The Dead
Día de los Muertos translates into English as “Day of the Dead.” This is a celebration of life and death as a cultural holiday in most Latin American countries, especially Mexico, adorned with colorful calaveras (skulls) and calacas (skeletons) amidst carnivals and masquerades. Let’s debunk this misconception: Día de los Muertos is not the Mexican version of Halloween. Though the two are closely related in terms of when they’re celebrated, they differ greatly in traditions and culture.
Halloween is seen as a dark night of terror and mischief, whereas Día de los Muertos festivities are seen as an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. The theme is death, but this is meant to demonstrate love and respect toward the deceased. Throughout Mexico, revelers don funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones. If you’ve ever seen the Disney animated movie ‘Coco,’ it was based on Día de los Meurtos.
It has its origins several thousands of years ago. The Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people considered the mourning of the dead as a disrespectful rite, huh? These pre-Hispanic cultures saw death as a natural continuum of life. The dead were still members of the community, and during Día de los Meurtos, they returned to the living realm. Nowadays, it’s celebrated with a mashup of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. This event takes place on November 1 and 2 — all saints’ and all souls’ day on the Catholic liturgical calendar.
A Unique Heritage, A Colorful Culture
The festive season boast of rituals with symbolic meaning; and are all essential things you should know about Mexico’s most colorful annual event:
The centerpiece of the celebration is the ofrenda (an altar) built in homes and cemeteries. These aren’t for worship, rather they’re meant to welcome dead souls back to the living realm. They host offerings: water, food, old family photos, and a candle for each dead relative (more on the food later), with small toys for dead children. You’d often find marigold petals as decorations around the altar — scattered from the altar to the cemeteries which serve as a guide for the souls to find their way back home. The copal incense transmits their praise and prayers and purifies the altar.
Calavera and Calaca
Calavera literally means “skull,” but it has evolved over the centuries and it’s now used to describe a short poetry, often humorous and sarcastic, that is published in the news that pokes ridicule at the living. These literary calaveras eventually became tombstone epitaphs and a popular feature of Día de los Muertos celebrations. Nowadays, you’ll find this clever, biting poetry everywhere — in print, read aloud, and broadcast on television and radio programs.
The cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada once created an etching to accompany a literary calavera. His work featured a skeleton dressed in a fancy French garb of which he named “Calavera Garbancera.” Posada’s artistic calaca was featured by the artist Diego Rivera in his masterpiece mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” The infamous quote “todos somos calaveras,” was commonly attributed to Posada, means “we are all skeletons” — which became a popular feature as well.
Día de los Muertos is an extreme social festival amidst public carnivals at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as a skeleton is the main attraction; people of all ages paint their faces with makeup to resembling skulls, and, mimicking the calavera Catrina, they put on all sort of fancy dresses. Often, revelers carry shells or other noisemakers to amp up the fun — and also possibly to rouse the dead.
Food of the Dead
Being dead for years means you’ve probably haven’t eaten all that while — or at least that’s what Mexicans believe. Some families often place favorite foods of their loved ones on the altar. Some of the foods include: Pan de muerto (you guessed it), bread of the dead, a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), often decorated with bones and skulls made from dough featuring anise seeds. The bones are arranged in circles — representing the circle of life — with tiny dough teardrops symbolizing sorrow.
This literally translates to “pierced paper” in English, and it’s exactly what it says it is. If you’re familiar with Mexican lifestyle, you’ll often find this beautiful paper craft in stateside restaurants. It represents the wind and the fragility of life. It is made by stacking dozens of colored paper in layers, which is then perforated with a hammer and chisel. Papel picado isn’t exclusive during Día de los Muertos, but plays a significant role during the holiday, often placed around the altars and in streets.
See more stunning photos from Día de los Meurtos celebrations.
Where Cometh The Dead?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in defining the term “cultural heritage,” isn’t limited to collections of ancient monuments and objects. This includes any living expression of cultural traditions that’s been around for generations. And in 2008, UNESCO recognized Día de los Muertos, and listed it as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Nowadays, Mexican all over the country celebrate Día de los Muertos as a reaffirmation of their indigenous life.
If you ever visit Mexico during fall, join in the celebration of Día de los Muertos, there is live music, bike rides and other activities in celebration all day and night. Several communities in Mexico celebrate Día de los Muertos, but styles and customs differ by region, depending on the region’s predominant pre-Hispanic culture.
Here are a few Mexican towns that stand out for their colorful celebrations:
- Aguascalientes: This town is located some 495 kilometers (308 miles) northeast of Mexico City, it’s the birthplace of Posada. Celebrations could last nearly a whole week with it’s own festival, Festival de Calaveras (Festival of Skulls).
- Mixquic: This suburb of Mexico City is famous for it’s ancient style of bells tolling from the historic Augustinian convent, with locals bearing candles and flowers in a procession to the local cemetery, where they clean and decorate the graves.
- Pátzcuaro: This town is located some 365 kilometers (226 miles) west of Mexico City. It has one of the most lively celebrations, locals paddle canoes to Janitzio, a tiny island where they hold an all-night vigil at an indigenous cemetery.
- Tuxtepec: This small town is located 436 kilometers (271 miles) southeast of Mexico City, and it’s best known for it’s sawdust rugs. Locals arrange colored sawdust, petals, pine needles, and other organic materials in rug-like patterns on the streets. This is a price-winning contest during celebrations.
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Thu, Oct 22, 2020.