Let’s play a game. Where in the world would you have ventured if in the next few nights, the streets were: illuminated with the glimmer of a thousand candles and handheld lanterns; teeming with the half-dead in elaborate finery; and positively celebratory with the swishing of delicate, lengthy skirts? If you guessed Mexico — particularly the Central and South regions of the country — then, you’d be correct.
Perhaps you’re acquainted with the basics of this breathtaking tradition: it is a festival of sorts where gatherings of people pray for and remember friends and family members who have passed on. If you’re a bit more worldly, you might recall to mind the representation of Catrina (the female skeleton donning the outfit of an upperclass European woman) that has become one of the holiday’s most popular icons.
Yet this tradition is steeped in history and heritage. Here, we delve into the finer points of Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.
1. A two-day affair.
Whilst the unknowing might refer to this festival as a single day, it occurs over two days. Dia de los Inocentes — held on November 1st — invites families and friends to remember children (angelitos) who have died. This precedes Dias de los Muertos — held on November 2nd. Belief dictates that on each day, spirits are allowed to return to their families on earth for 24 hours.
The treatment of graves vary slightly between days. Children’s graves are decorated with white orchids and baby’s breath. The next day, graves are normally adorned with bright orange marigolds, called cempasuchil.
2. The mestizo (hybrid) heritage.
The origins of the holiday are particularly intriguing: in short, the Day of the Dead is a result of ancient Aztec civilisations crossing paths with the Catholic Spanish explorers who would eventually colonise the native populations in South America.
A key figure of the holiday is Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the underworld in Aztec mythology. She presides over the modern-day festival — and legend has it that she knows the darker subject matter quite well, having been sacrificed as an infant herself.
The Catholic feast days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day ultimately converged with these beliefs to give rise to the festival as we recognise it today.
3. All about ofrendas.
In several villages, decorative altars called ofrendas (literally “offering” in Spanish), are erected in each home. These are commonly divided into three tiers. The topmost tier displays an image of the deceased, alongside religious statuettes and crucifixes.
Mounds of food line the second tier. Fruit; peanuts; plates of turkey mole; tortillas and special breads (like the sweetbread, pan de puerto) are necessary — weary spirits need to refresh themselves after the long journey from the other side. Candles, washbasins, soaps and mirrors are also kept neatly on the third tier.
4. Women with two faces.
The stunning images of women draped in outfits from some distant past, with their faces carefully painted to look like skeletons, often accompany annual coverage of this holiday. These costumes are likely an homage to La Calavera Catrina, an image that has its roots in a zinc etching produced by famed Mexican printmaker, Jose Guadalupe Posada in the early 20th century.
The etching depicts a female skeleton dressed in a single hat that befits the upper class clothing of a contemporaneous European woman. At the time, it was interpreted as a satirical jab at Mexican natives who aspired to embrace the look of European aristocracy during the days before the revolution.
Yet, most women only cover half their face with this image. While contentious, this could be a hint at the duality of existence: one side of the face is alive, the other dead.
5. Making some noise.
In several parts of Mexico, participants often wear clanging shells or other noisemakers on their person. There are several possible theories for this — aside from the obvious atmosphere of revelry and fun that these create.
One idea holds that the dead, in some cases, enjoyed music or dancing in life. Further to this, the louder the noise, the easier it is to wake the deceased from their unearthly slumber so that they too can join the party.
6. A feast befitting the occasion.
As with most holidays, the Day of the Dead is well-supplied with special foods that are prepared only for that time of year. In addition to the items on the altar (see 3), some ofrendas often offer up bottles of soda, hot cocoa, and even liquors like tequila and mescal (poured into shot glasses for adults only) for guests coming in from another plane.
The menu includes everything from the initial cocktail to desserts. Our favourites include Cafe de olla atole, a corn-based drink which is sometimes accompanied by a shot of coffee. Of course, this varies from culture to culture: in Ecuador, the celebrations are marked by the arrival of gauges de pan — sweet bread figurines.
7. Gleaming sugar skulls.
Of course, no discussion about the food consumed during the Day of the Dead would be complete without mentioning its famous sugar skulls. These beautifully crafted candies line the ofrendas on all three tiers — and are made of only sugar, or chocolate.
So, where did this tradition originate? Sugar art is purported to have arrived from Italian missionaries in the 17th century. Mexico, which was abundant in sugar production, learned from these friars how to make sugar art for their religious festivals.
In the modern day, each glittery, colourful skull represents a person who has died. Their names are written on each skull’s “forehead.”
Your Turn: Are there any truly remarkable festival traditions that we’ve overlooked here? If you’re a reader from Mexico, might you have anything else to add about these wondrous traditions? We’d love to hear from you — please leave your questions and comments below.