10 facts to know about Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday, celebrated on the first two days of November. Its purpose is to celebrate the lives of the deceased on the days of the year when their spirits are believed to return to our world. It is a national holiday, seen by many in Mexico as second only to Christmas in terms of its importance, and it is growing in popularity around the world thanks to the Mexican diaspora abroad. To help illustrate how fascinating this holiday truly is, here are 10 things you should know:
1 - Day of the Dead is NOT Mexican Halloween
Contrary to what is often portrayed in popular culture, the Day of the Dead is not Mexico’s version of Halloween. Even though they fall around the same time of year, and have similarities, the two are different holidays with separate origins and unique traditions. Halloween has its origins in the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, while Day of the Dead is rooted in the ancient religious traditions of Mesoamerica’s indigenous population. Halloween, as it is practiced today, involves trick-or-treating, wearing costumes, and decorating pumpkins. Day of the Dead traditions involve none of those things. In Halloween, spirits are seen as scary, or something to be warded off. Day of the Dead focuses on receiving the souls of dead relatives with joy and hospitality.
2 - The holiday has a rich and ancient history, dating back over 2000 years.
As mentioned above, the roots of Day of the Dead run deep in Mexican history and date back to the days before the Spanish conquest. Pre-columbian civilizations had a variety of celebrations aimed at honoring the dead. However, many of the traditions we know today come from the religious practices of the Aztecs, who believed different afterlives existed depending on how people died. One of these is Mictlán, the final destination for those who died of natural causes, and ruled by the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, often represented by a skull. The Aztecs believed that in order to reach Mictlán, souls had to complete an arduous journey. To help the deceased along this journey, the Aztecs would make offerings of useful objects at their relatives’ burial sites. Several Aztec holidays involved rituals to honor the deceased, including decorating tree stumps and placing offerings for dead relatives. These traditions set the precedent for the Ofrendas, or Day of the Dead altars placed by Mexican families today.
After colonization, these traditions were Christianized and became incorporated into the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, producing a unique syncretism of traditions. The traditions were moved from summer to November 1st and 2nd to coincide with these two days.
3 - Mexican families place Ofrendas to honor their deceased relatives
In the days preceding the holiday, it is customary to build a shrine to honor one’s deceased relatives. These shrines, referred to in Spanish as “Ofrendas,” are bright, colorful, and ornate. They are adorned in orange and purple, the holiday’s traditional colors, and decorated with flowers, including marigolds, and decorated paper crafts, including the traditional “papel picado.” Placed atop these altars are photographs of the deceased, objects that were precious to them, and foods they enjoyed in life. These sit alongside sugar skulls, candles, the traditional Pan de Muertos, crosses, and statues and icons of Jesus and Saints. Secular, and non-Catholic Mexicans will often avoid placing this religious iconography on their Ofrendas.
During the holiday, Ofrendas are not only placed in homes, but also in schools, offices, and public squares. In cities around Mexico, public Ofrendas become a spectacle in itself, attracting dozens of people to view these gorgeous, large-scale altars placed within public view. They are often made by well-known artists, adopt a yearly theme, and are meant to honor important figures in Mexican history and culture.
4 - Day of the Dead isn’t somber, it is a celebration
While many would expect Day of the Dead to be a solemn memorial day, it is actually a joyous occasion, meant as a celebration of life. Instead of everything being dark and somber, as is commonly associated with mourning rituals, the holiday is bright and colorful, with decorations filling nearly every home and public space in the country. It is common to have celebratory meals with family, as well as street parties with music and dancing. In many towns, there are celebratory processions involving masks, puppets, and colorful costumes.
5 - Humor has played an important role in the holiday
Given that Day of the Dead is a festivity, it has become common to interject classic Mexican humor to add to the light-heartedness of the occasion. Day of the Dead art often features skeletons drinking, dancing and celebrating, and these skeletons are often depicted in humorous situations. Since the 19th Century, the holiday has become synonymous with the art of Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada, who created quirky skeleton-based art and characters, including the iconic La Catrina.
Another tradition that reflects this is the custom of writing “calaveritas” which are short, humorous poems about a living person and how they died. These are often shared between friends and family, or are published in magazines and newspapers to satirize celebrities and politicians.
6 - It is customary to visit cemeteries
A central part of the holiday involves going to the cemetery and spending time at the graves of loved ones. In preparation for Day of the Dead, families will clean and wash the graves of their departed, and decorate them with candles, and flowers such as marigolds. They will bring offerings of food that the deceased enjoyed and objects that were meaningful to them in life. In the case of children, toys will be brought to the grave site. In many parts of the country, families will share a meal alongside the graves of their relatives, while sharing stories and memories about the loved ones they have lost.
7 - Marigolds are a key component
The Flor de Cempasuchil, also known as Mexican Marigold is a bright orange flower that grows around Mexico during autumn. It has become an important symbol of the Day of the Dead. Around the time of the holiday, it is seen everywhere, from Ofrendas, to public buildings, and even parks. The reason for this is not only the fact that it is a seasonal flower, but also because of the flower’s uniquely strong smell. This smell is believed, according to Mexican folklore, to attract spirits. For this reason, it is traditionally placed in Ofrendas to attract the souls of the deceased to their living relatives’ homes. The flower is also strongly associated with the sun and rebirth, given its orange color.
8 - Pastries and sweets are central to the holiday
Like any special occasion in Mexico, food plays a vital role. The traditional meal often includes Mexican favorites like tamales and atole, but what most people look forward to during the season are the desserts. The main item of food associated with the holiday is Pan de Muertos, a delicious loaf of sweet bread, coated in sugar, and decorated to resemble a pile of bones.
Another staple is the sugar skull. An ornately decorated sugar sculpture shaped like a skull that can be both a beautiful decoration or a sweet treat. They come in both edible and non-edible varieties. The more decorative sugar skulls will often contain a space to write the name of a deceased loved one to be placed on top of the Ofrenda. The edible version is simpler, and usually made from a softer kind of sugar. Edible skulls can also be found in a chocolate version, and bakeries and sweet shops across the country make skull shaped pastries, cookies, and even gummies for the holiday.
9 - Different traditions exist in different parts of the country
Mexico is a very large and diverse country, and, as such, it is not a homogenous place. Thus, Day of the Dead celebrations tend to vary from place to place. It is not uncommon for different towns to have their own unique traditions. Mixquic, just outside of Mexico City, decorates the town with paper chains and stars in order to guide the spirits, while in Patzcuaro, Michoacán, people travel to the cemetery by riding candle-lit boats across the lake at night. In the Yucatán peninsula, it is customary to have a holiday meal in which the main dish is pib, a tamale-like maize-based casserole.
10 - The Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City is a very recent addition
Going by the opening scene in the most recent James Bond movie SPECTRE, one would assume that the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City is a pretty big deal. However, the parade and street party seen in the film were actually entirely fictional and devised by the film’s writers. Given the interest this generated from tourists, the Mexico City government actually created its own version of the parade inspired by the film a few years ago. The parade became extremely popular, but it was not without its critics who chided the increased commercialization of the holiday.