¡Feliz Día de los Muertos! Today is the final day of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, a vibrant and unique holiday that takes place annually in a number of countries across the globe. Today, we’re putting down our vapes to learn a little more about the Day of the Dead and how it is celebrated.
What is Day of the Dead?
The Day of the Dead, or el Día de los Muertos, is a Mexican holiday held from the 31st of October until 2nd of November, where families reunite with the souls of their dead relatives to celebrate life and death.
According to tradition, the gates to the afterlife open at midnight on October 31st and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for the next 24 hours, after which the spirits of adults return on the 2nd of November. Whilst Halloween is a darker holiday spent playing tricks and telling ghost stories, the Day of the Dead is a colourful and fun-filled celebration packed with parties, feasts and parades.
When did Day of the Dead begin?
The origins of Day of the Dead date back to Aztec times, around 3,000 years ago in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztecs and Nahua people, living in what is now central Mexico, had their own rituals honouring the dead. Rather than fearing death, they viewed it as an integral, inevitable aspect of life.
It was believed that when a person died, they travelled to Chicunamictlán, or the Land of the Dead. There, they would face nine challenging trials during a seven year journey before their soul could finally reach Mictlán, the eternal resting place.
The original Nahua rituals were traditionally held in August, and family members honoured the dead by providing food, water and tools to aid past relatives during their difficult journey. This inspired the Day of the Dead celebrations we see today, during which people leave food and other offerings on their loved ones’ graves, or bespoke altars called Ofrendas.
What countries celebrate Day of the Dead?
Whilst it is traditionally a Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead is also celebrated in many other Latin countries. These include Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela, though the celebrations differ from country to country.
Whilst the base beliefs remain the same, each nation that celebrates Día de los Muertos welcomes back the souls of past relatives in their own unique ways. Even across Mexico, the customs vary depending on the area. It tends to be celebrated more elaborately in Central and Southern Mexico, especially in Mexico city where they host huge parades and feasts.
What happens on Day of the Dead?
As the souls of their past relatives return to the land of the living, their families welcome them by decorating their graves and building Ofrendas, covering them in flowers and bright decorations. They also prepare their relatives’ favourite food, dance and play music with loved ones, treating the deceased as honoured guests.
This year’s celebration has been their biggest yet. After the pandemic forced the cancellation of festivities in 2020, this weekend’s parade saw Mexico's streets packed. The capital came to life with parades of dancers, performers and puppet masters dressed in traditional costumes honouring their deceased relatives.
What is an Ofrenda?
An Ofrenda is the centrepiece of the Day of the Dead celebrations, handmade by families in their homes and cemeteries. Rather than a tool of worship, Ofrendas are used to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. Families place a range of offerings on them, including water, food, family photos and a candle for each dead relative.
Marigolds are the main flowers associated with Día de los Muertos, and they are scattered on the Ofrenda leading to the gravesite. The petals are said to help guide wandering spirits back to their resting place once the festivities are over. They also burn copal incense, made from tree resin, as it transmits praise and prayers that purifies the air around the Ofrenda.
What do the skulls represent on Day of the Dead?
Skulls and skeletons are synonymous with the Day of the Dead, but rather than being scary, they are bright and bold with colourful designs and wide smiles.
Their origin can be traced back to a drawing by José Guadalupe Posada, a cartoonist and social activist in the early 1900’s. “La Calavera Catrina” was published in 1911, a year before the Mexican Revolution, portraying a high-society female skeleton wearing makeup and fancy french clothes.
It was originally designed to be a statement about Mexicans discarding their own heritage and traditions in favour of European fashions, but it was later adopted as one of the most recognisable icons of Día de los Muertos.
What food do they eat on Day of the Dead?
Pan de muerto is a sweet bread traditionally baked in Mexico for the Día de los Muertos holiday. Families usually make one for themselves to eat on the 2nd of November, and a second loaf to place on the Ofrenda. It is usually decorated with skulls or cross bones.
Sugar skulls are a popular treat, celebrating the La Calavera Catrina. They are also placed on Ofrendas, with the names of past family members written in icing on the top.
Other traditional meals include pan-roasted chicken breasts with mole negro, which is a flavoursome and dark chile infused chocolate sauce. They also serve a bitter and spiced hot chocolate, originating from Oaxaca.
What do you wear to Day of the Dead Celebrations?
Day of the Dead has become an extremely social holiday, especially in the last decade. Parades and parties spill into the streets throughout the day and overnight, with people dressing up in vibrant costumes.
Many paint their faces to mimic La Calavera Catrina, using bright and bold colours with big smiles, whilst wearing suits and elaborate dresses. Party and parade goers also don shells to make noise, helping to amp up the festivities and rouse the dead to keep their relatives close.
Is Day of the Dead a recognised holiday?
After efforts by UNESCO, the term “cultural heritage” is no longer limited to monuments and collections of objects. It now includes living expressions of cultures and traditions passed down from generation to generation.
The Day of the Dead has been recognised as an official holiday on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2008. Today, millions of Mexicans and those of Latin heritage celebrate Día de los Muertos across the world, but the holiday is still a reaffirmation of indigenous life and culture.
Why is Day of the Dead growing in popularity?
Following its recognition by UNESCO, Día de los Muertos has continued to grow in popularity. In recent years, the traditional holiday has developed even more due to its increased visibility in pop culture, especially in the US.
Since the release of ‘Spectre’, the twenty-fourth James Bond film, the festivities have only gotten bigger. Mexicans were inspired to replicate the opening scene, in which Daniel Craig is embroiled in a street fight in the middle of a Day of the Dead parade. In response, the government upped the celebrations and they now have a huge parade every year through the streets of Mexico City.
Pixar’s ‘Coco’ also fuelled mass interest in the holiday. The $175 million film showcases the Mexican tradition via a young boy who is transported to the Land of the Dead, where he reunites with his long-lost ancestors.
Like all traditional holidays, the customs and celebrations that take place on Día de los Muertos continue to grow and evolve. The beliefs at its core still remain since it began thousands of years ago, and it continues to be an occasion for lovingly remembering and celebrating those who have passed.
It also portrays death in a far more positive light compared to many other cultures, and the acceptance of it being a natural part of human life is most likely why we find ourselves so drawn to it.