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  • The Day of the Dead

    by Linda Heaphy March 22, 2017

    Day of the Dead imagery can be traditional, or stylised, as this image of a skull shows.


    The Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is a national holiday and festival of remembrance observed throughout Mexico and in more recent times, around the world.

    Dating back at least hundreds of years to an Aztec event dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the Lady of the Dead, the celebration focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died and commemorates the transitory return to Earth of deceased loved ones.

    Traditionally, private altars called ofrendas are built and decorated with sugar skulls and marigolds, while gifts of favourite foods and beverages of the departed, as well as their pictures and former possessions, are left as offerings of respect.  The scent of the marigolds is believed to entice the dead back to this annual reunion, and altars are decorated lavishly with hundreds, if not thousands of the flowers.

    Prior to the Spanish colonisation of Mexico in the 16th century, the Día de Muertos took place at the beginning of summer in the month of August, but was moved to October 31 to November 2 in order to coincide with the Roman Catholic Church’s festival of All Hallows, consisting of All Hallows' Eve, Hallowmas, and All Souls' Day. In fact, the Day of the Dead was not much celebrated in the north of Mexico until relatively recently because there was little Meso-American influence in this region and it was perceived as a largely pagan celebration. In the 1960’s the Mexican government made the Día de Muertos a national holiday in an attempt to unify national pride and reinforce the political and social status of Mexico’s indigenous communities, however many families in northern Mexico are more inclined to celebrate All Saints Day on 2nd November, in line with the practices of the Catholic Church.

    Day of the Dead festival in the centre of Tlalpan. Photocredit:Luisroj96


    The customs and activities used to celebrate the Día de Muertos are not universal and vary from town to town. However, some aspects are typical. The skull or calavera is a common theme reproduced in chocolate, sugar candy, masks, paper mache and terracotta, as are the marigolds seen at every gravesite. Traditional foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes and often decorated with white icing to look like twisted bones. Rosaries and candles are also associated with the celebrations, as are images of the Virgin Mary. Some families build small household shrines and Government offices usually display at least one altar as a display of national pride. Short poems called calaveras (skulls), witty epitaphs and funny anecdotes of the recently deceased are also published by friends and in newspapers. José Guadalupe Posada, a satirical political commentator of the late 19thcentury, created a figure he called La Calavera Catrina (the Elegant Skull) as a parody of the typical Mexican upper-class female, and this famous female with skeleton face has become indelibly associated with the Día de Muertos.

    The celebration of Día de Muertos has spread throughout the world, absorbed into other traditions for honouring the dead and now especially associated with Halloween and the festival of All Hallows. In Mexico, mainly within the larger cities, older customs are being displaced and children celebrate with Trick-or-Treating in much the same way Americans do. In other parts of the world Day of the Dead imagery has become common. Some people believe possessing Day of the Dead items can bring good luck; for others it simply represents a fascination with a culture rich with visual imagery, while many see it as a means of accepting and celebrating the inevitable cycle of life and death.

    Addendum: The Smithsonian Institution, in collaboration with the University of Texas at El Paso and Second Life, have created a Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum and accompanying multimedia e-book: Día de los Muertos: Day of the Dead. The project's website explains the origins of some of the customary practices surrounding the Day of the Dead, including background beliefs and the origin of the offrenda.

    References and Further Reading:

    Day of the Dead.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day_of_the_Dead. Retrieved 2nd November 2014.

    Day of the Dead history: Ritual dating back 3000 years.AzCentral. Retrieved 2nd November 2014.

    Day of the Dead & the Sugar Skull Tradition.MexicanSugarSkull.com. Retrieved 2nd November 2014.

    Indigenous Festivity Dedicated to the Dead. UNESCO. Retrieved 2 November 2014.

    Photographs from Mexico's Day of the Dead, Where Candles and Heaps of Marigolds Draw out the Spirits.Robert Hemedes, 2014. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 2nd November 2014.

    The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National Identity. Journal of American Folklore 442, 1998: 359-80.


    Catrinas. Photocredit: Luisroj96


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