day of the dead mexico

Day of the Dead - the origins behind the kooky Mexican festival

1 June 2017

Day of the Dead - the origins behind the kooky Mexican festival

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So, just what is Mexico's Day of the Dead festival?

Yes, it does sound a bit like a super creepy zombie apocalypse. One may think there could be corpses with rotting flesh wandering past hip taquerias or skeletons clinking margaritas on the beach, but it’s not quite like this at all.

In fact, it's a festival of love. Love of those who have left this world. A time to remember, to talk to the departed and to support their spiritual journey.

That's not to say there isn't plenty of super creepy stuff going on. Skulls are not in short supply.

But let's wind back and find out where it all started and what it's really all about.

Way back in southern Mexico...

Way back – we're talking maybe three thousand years ago – the pre-Columbian people in Mexico celebrated the lives of their lost ancestors. Family members who had died were still considered important members of the community and during the festivities they returned to listen to the celebrations. There were rituals and ancient traditions that were passed on through the generations.

Way back a bit less – just a few hundred years ago – the celebrations remembering the dead had turned into a month-long affair. The ninth month of the Aztec calender, around the time of our August, was dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the 'Lady of the Dead' and the keeper of the bones in the underworld.

The celebration zombie-morphs into a three day affair

Over the centuries, the festival celebrations gradually shifted from a month in August to three days in November. This shift was aligning the festivities with another celebration of the departed that was observed in Mexico – Allhallowtide. This was a three-day Christian tradition encompassing All Saints Eve (or All Hallows Eve – Halloween), All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

In the north of Mexico, the Christian traditions were celebrated and in the south there was more focus on the traditional celebrations – but across Mexico, everyone was remembering the dead.

The skull wearing a hat takes centre stage

Bones were a significant part of the celebrations since the times of worshipping Mictecacihuatl, the keeper of the bones. But the importance of the skull really kicked up a gear within the last hundred years.

Some time around 1911, Mexican artist and printmaker José Guadalupe Posada created an etching that he called 'La Calavera Catrina' – the elegant skull. The etching showed a skull dressed in a large, fancy European-style hat. It was a political statement about Mexicans striving to adopt European traditions.

And then, in 1947, artist Diego Rivera painted a large street mural in Mexico City showing La Calavera Catrina at the centre. This mural really catapulted the image of the hatted skeleton on to centre stage.

Calavera Catrina became the image of death in Mexico and was adopted as an icon of the Day of the Dead celebrations. It is an image layered with meaning. It harks back to the ancient bone goddess; it is a joke against wealthy aspirants; and it projects the willingness to look death in the face and laugh – the hatted skeleton is an enduring and important icon.

Dia de Muertos becomes a National Big Deal

These days, the festivities revolve around two important days. November 1 is Day of the Innocents – a day honouring dead children. November 2 is Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead – and it is a day dedicated to honouring dead adults.

Recently, the Mexican government made the Day of the Dead a national holiday, in a move unifying Mexico's celebrations around the indigenous traditions. Plus, the Day of the Dead was added to UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. So Dia de Muertos is now officially a National Big Deal.

Cemeteries, marigolds and sugar skulls

So what happens on the Day of the Dead? If you visit Mexico at the time of the festival, what will you find going on?

Well, the heart of the celebration is honouring loved and lost family members. Families gather at cemeteries at the graves of their loved ones. They spend time cleaning up the graves and decorating them. They build temporary alters which are designed to welcome the spirits back to earth. Alters are loaded up wth the favourite food and drinks of the departed family members. They display photos and mementos, put out dishes of fruit and nuts. A special bread is baked called muertos – the bread of the dead. There are sugar skulls, paper decorations and cut out skeletons. Orange marigolds are an important decoration as they are the flowers of the dead.

Anecdotes about the departed are told – funny stories, jokes, re-tellings of past events. The festivities at the cemeteries are an opportunity for families to communicate with their loved ones – they are hoping their departed family members will hear their prayers and their conversations about them. In this way they are supporting the spiritual journey of their loved ones and they are showing respect to the cycle of life and death.

One big party for the dead

Alongside all the family love, there's a party atmosphere. Death is not considered a sombre affair – celebrating it really is celebrating. So the fun is out in force. There are parades and parties, singing and dancing, costumes and treats. There is a huge Day of the Dead parade in the streets of Mexico City – in 2016 over 100,000 people gathered to celebrate.

The Mexicans have a unique attitude to death – they engage with it, they celebrate, they stare it in the face and say “dead, alive... it doesn't matter. We are still one family.”

And that's a pretty good reason to dress up as a skeleton in a hat, eat some sugar skulls and take your party to the streets.