Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not a Mexican version of Halloween. The two annual events differ in traditions and tone. While Halloween is a dark night of terror and mischief, the Day of the Dead festivities honour deceased family members. Revellers don amazing makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones. It actually takes place over two days: November 1st and 2nd – All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people. These pre-Hispanic cultures considered death to be one part of life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit, and during Día de los Muertos they temporarily returned to Earth. Over the years these traditions blended with Christian traditions.
At the centre of the celebration is an altar, or ‘ofrenda’, built in homes and cemeteries. These are designed to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. They are loaded with offerings: water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative. The altars are decorated with marigolds which are scattered in a pathway to the grave-site, to guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the whole area.
In the 18th Century the term Calavera (which means ‘skull’) was used to describe short, humorous poems, often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs that poked fun at the living. In the early 20th century, Mexican political cartoonist and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada illustrated a calavera by drawing ‘Death’ dressed in fancy French clothes. It was a social commentary about the way Mexican society copied so-called European sophistication. He captioned it, “Todos somos calaveras,” which translates as, “We are all skeletons.” He meant that underneath all our manmade finery, we are all the same. His stylised personification of Death was appropriated by the artist Diego Rivera in 1947, in his most famous piece of artwork – Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park. He painted Death wearing a large feminine hat, and named her Catrina, slang for ‘the rich’. She was adopted as a symbol of the day of the Dead and today this elegant skull is seen everywhere during the festival, especially in the beautiful make-up and costumes worn by revellers. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls, and wear fancy suits and dresses.
Foods eaten included pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, which is a typical sweet bread containing aniseeds, and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. There are also sugar skulls, in the style of the Catrina Calavera. These are part of a sugar art tradition brought by 17th-century Italian missionaries. They can be incredibly beautiful and complex. The drink there is often pulque, a sweet fermented beverage made from agave sap, the same sap from which tequila is produced.
Thanks to recognition by UNESCO and the global sharing of information, Día de los Muertos is more popular than ever—in Mexico, and increasingly abroad. It’s possible to find Day of the Dead celebrations in America and even in the UK. Last year there was festivals in London, Leeds, Bristol and Bournemouth. Look around your local area and see if anything is happening near you.