While those of us in good ol’ Blighty don our devil horns and fill up the sweet bucket for the pesky trick or treaters who plague our doorsteps, elsewhere in the world preparations have begun for another type of celebration. Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican holiday which focuses not on gory horror and carving out pumpkins, but on gathering friends and family together to pray for loved ones who have passed away.
Although collectively referred to as Día de los Muertos, the celebration is actually split into two main days, though festivities can last for a whole week. November 1—Día de los Inocentes/Angelitos—is reserved for honouring children and infants, while November 2—Día de los Muertos/Difuntos—is reserved for honouring adults.
Incredibly important to Mexican heritage, the holiday’s roots can be traced way back to Aztec ritual from more than 3,000 years ago. Aztecs and Meso-American civilisations believed that death was not an end to life, but a continuation of it: death was merely part of a wider cycle of existence, and the soul did not disappear but instead rested in Mictlàn. Mictlàn, the equivalent of an Aztec underworld, was an arduous nine-level journey full of perilous challenges which took the dead four years to complete before they reached eternal rest.
The beginnings of today’s two-day Día de los Muertos celebration then lasted for a whole month, known as Miccailhuitontli, during which the civilisations believed the dead were permitted to leave Mictlàn and could return to earth to visit their living relatives. This celebration was presided over by Mictecacihuatl, Lady of the Dead, or the Queen of Mictlàn, who is said to now also preside over the contemporary festival.
If you’re thinking that two days of remembering the dead sounds like a weekend sob-fest, think again. Mourning is not on the agenda, and is in fact actively discouraged: there is a Mexican saying which specifically cautions “the path back to the living world must not be made slippery by tears.” Día de los Muertos is a vibrant contrast to European attitudes towards mortality. Full of colour and zest, this festival is a joyous event to honour the dead, to celebrate their lives, and to welcome them back into the world of the living for one day a year.
Preparation usually involves the cleaning and decoration of loved ones’ grave sites in order to facilitate the visit. Orange Mexican marigolds, widely regarded as the flower of the dead are widely seen and have come to represent the holiday. Private altars and shrines are sometimes built in the home to encourage the souls to listen to the prayers of the living, and ofrendas (offerings) are sometimes placed there as welcoming gestures. These often include toys for children, trinkets, favourite foods, drinks, and bottles of tequila for adults. There are also specific festival goods which are made especially for the occasion: candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (literally “bread of the dead”, a soft sweet bread sometimes decorated with bone shapes), or atole (polenta and water flavoured with various fruits).
The skull has been an important symbol of Día de los Muertos since Aztec times, when skulls would be placed around to oversee the rituals. Nowadays, participants wear masks called calacas (colloquial term for “skeleton”) and offer sugar or chocolate skulls with the name of the deceased on the forehead.
Family and friends gather to reminisce about their loved ones and celebrate their time on earth. Some write short poems called calaveras describing interesting habits or funny anecdotes. The souls enjoy the ‘essence’ of the food and drink offered to them, and then family members will physically consume what’s there—although they believe it never tastes the same.
Although most traditions remain the same, specific celebrations for Day of the Dead can vary between regions: for example, the southern state of Chiapas is more focused on processions and public displays of celebration, whereas Mexico focuses more on private altars and receptions in homes.