Dia de los Muertos – The Festival of the Dead

Dia de los Muertos – The Festival of the Dead

Costumes, parades and festivities with undertones of mystery and otherworldliness? Yes please! 

Literally translating to ‘the Day of the Dead’, Dia de los Muertos is a two-day holiday celebrated in Mexico. Falling on the 01st of November of every year, el Día de los Muertos is a tradition that dates back to more than 3,000 years. This festival is said to be a blend of European religion, Mesoamerican rituals and Spanish culture, originating from the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people who believed mourning the dead to be disrespectful. During this festival, families welcome back the souls of their deceased loved ones for a celebratory reunion with food, drink and festivities during these two days.  

01st November which is the first day of the festival is typically known as el Dia de los Inocentes,” or the day of the children, and All Saints Day while the 02nd of November is known as the Day of the Dead or the All Souls Day. It is believed that on the first day of the festival the gates of the heaven are opened so that the spirits of children can return to their loved ones on earth and on the second day, adults can do the same. 

The traditions and the rituals of this festival are extremely fascinating. Altars or ofrendas are built in homes and cemeteries to welcome back the spirits with generous offerings of food and water to quench the hunger and thirst of the loved ones after the long journey, a candle for each dead relative, family photos and even toys if your dearly departed are children. The deceased’s favorite meal is usually placed on the altar and another food popularly placed on the altar during the festival are Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) which is a sweet bread seasoned with anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones are usually arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Dough teardrops on the bread symbolizes sorrow. (WARD, n.d.)

Other popular food items include atole, a warm, thin corn flour porridge with cinnamon, vanilla and unrefined cane sugar, pulque, a beverage made with sweet, fermented agave sap and hot chocolate. Brought on by 17th century missionaries, skull shaped sugar candies pressed in molds and decorated with crystalline colors are also part of the tradition, bringing in an air of exclusivity to the Mexican food culture. (Day of the Dead, n.d.) Marigold petals are scattered from the altar to the site of the grave to guide the lost souls back to their places of rest.  

El Dia de los Muertos is by no means a somber affair! Dressing up as skeletons is all the rage and the festivities spill out onto the streets. People of all ages wear skull masks or paint their faces to resemble skulls and wear costumes that are loud and vivid mimicking the calavera Catrina, the most well-known piece of art of the artist José Guadalupe Posada where he features a female skeleton adorned with makeup and dressed in fancy clothes and parade about the town joining in with the live music, bike rides and various other festivities across town. The parades are grand and colorful, and you’d definitely be missing out if you hadn’t jumped in to join the fun. However, different towns of Mexico celebrate the festival in different ways and the regions of Pátzcuaro, Mixquic, Tuxtepec and Aguascalientes feature some of the most colorful and poignant celebrations across the board. And if you happen to join one of these parades, don’t forget to greet your fellow skulls with a cheery “Feliz día de los Muertos” to wish them a happy Day of the Dead! (Castro, 2020)

By Jayani Senanayake

Castro, E., 2020. Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos). [Online]
Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/day-of-the-dead
[Accessed 01 January 2021].

Day of the Dead, n.d. Day of the Dead. [Online]
Available at: https://dayofthedead.holiday/
[Accessed 01 January 2021].

WARD, L., n.d. Top 10 things to know about the Day of the Dead. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/mexico/top-ten-day-of-dead-mexico/
[Accessed 01 January 2021].

Image Reference
Cover Photo : Salvador Altamirano on Unsplash