Ever wondered what unique ways to celebrate the dead? Let's introduce you to the most iconic festival in Mexican culture: the Day of the Dead or Dia de Muertos. You will learn about the history and significance of this festival, how it is celebrated today, and how you can join the fun with some easy and creative ideas.
Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday that traces its origins to the ancient Mesoamerican civilisations, such as the Aztecs, who believed in a cyclical view of life and death. They held rituals to honour the dead and to help them in their journey to the underworld, called Mictlan. These rituals involved offering food, water, flowers, and skulls to the deceased, and lasted for a month in the Aztec calendar, around August.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they tried to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism and change their customs. They moved the celebration of the dead to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, on November 1 and 2. They also introduced new elements, such as Christian symbols, candles, and bread. However, the indigenous people preserved many of their original beliefs and practices, creating a unique fusion of cultures that is still celebrated today.
Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrates life and death. It is a way of remembering and honouring your ancestors and loved ones who have passed on, and celebrating their legacy. Día de Muertos takes place from 31 October to 2 November. This is where the Mexicans usually learn extensively about their family history. They also believe their ancestors’ spirits visit them briefly during this time.
The activities they do during Día de Muertos include creating and decorating altars to welcome the spirits, making or buying sugar skulls or calaveras to represent the departed, wearing costumes or masks of skeletons, and painting their faces to resemble heads.
In Mexico, Dia de Muertos is a holiday, and they always run parades or processions, where people carry images of saints, skulls, or coffins, and dance to music. The parades celebrate the joy of life and mock the fear of death. If you plan to visit Mexico during Día de Muertos, you don’t want to miss the festivals.
If you plan to visit Mexico during the Day of the Dead, here are things you can do to make your Day of the Dead experience memorable.
Costume Party, Photo by Oscar Damián Jiménez on Pexels
If you have watched the Pixar Movie Coco, you’d be somewhat familiar with the costuming of the Day of the Dead. That’s right, skulls and skeletons everywhere. They represent the dead, and by dressing and decorating their house with skulls, they remind themselves of the ones before them. Try one for yourself, not only do you celebrate a big holiday, but you also participate in preserving the culture of the Day of the Dead.
Mexican Parade, Photo by Oscar Damián Jiménez on Pexels
Joining a parade or a procession is a way to meet many new people and celebrate the Day of the Dead at the same time. Some of the famous parades and processions are in Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Michoacán, where people dress up in costumes, carry altars or coffins, play music, dance, and throw flowers or candy to the spectators.
The Mexicans play music and dance to express their gratitude to the dead and to entertain the spirits. Therefore, their choice of music and dance is tailored to celebration, recalling, and gratitude. If you want to participate, make sure you know about the music and the dance first to respect their culture. Also, ask the locals if it’s okay to participate.
UNESCO added the Day of the Dead to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. This means that the Day of the Dead is culturally preserved by the United Nations.
Dia de Muertos Preparation, Photo by Thirdman on Pexels
Let’s take a look at the items you should prepare first:
Skulls: Skulls are a must for a Día de Muertos. You can use sugar skulls, ceramic, or paper mache skulls to adorn your party space. Remember to decorate your skulls with some flowers and paints to enhance the atmosphere.
Candles: Candles are used to light the way for the spirits of the dead to visit the living. You can use candles of different colours and sizes to create a warm and inviting atmosphere.
Paper banners: Paper banners or papel picado are cut-out paper decorations hung from the ceiling or walls. They usually have intricate designs that depict skulls, flowers, animals, or other motifs related to the festival. You can buy papel picado online or at local markets or make your own using scissors or a craft knife.
Flowers: Flowers are another symbol of life and death in Mexican culture, and they are used to decorate altars, graves, and party spaces. The most common flower for Dia de Muertos is the marigold, which has a bright orange colour and a strong scent. You can use fresh or artificial flowers, or make your own using tissue paper or crepe paper.
If you aren’t Mexican, you probably won’t do the native activities like setting up altars (ofrendas) and praying, here are some activities you can do instead:
Storytelling: Share stories or memories of your and your guests loved ones who have passed away to honour them and keep their spirits alive.
Watch party: One of the ways to celebrate something in the modern world is to watch a movie about it. Coco, an animated film by Pixar, is one of the most popular movies that depict the Day of the Dead. If you are into documentaries, then Day of the Dead: A Celebration of Life is for you.
Joint meal: It’s not a party without something to eat together. Because it’s the Day of the Dead, this might be the time to cook a beloved person’s recipe to respect them and to remind you of them.
In conclusion, Day of the Dead is a vibrant and meaningful celebration that beautifully honors the lives of those who have passed away. With its colorful altars, delicious offerings, and heartfelt remembrances, this Mexican tradition reminds us of the enduring connection between the living and the departed, serving as a poignant reminder that love and memories never truly fade away.