Friday Fun

Friday Fun: El día de los muertos, the Day of the Dead


Ardent Partner Samantha Swan looks at Mexico’s Day of the Dead tradition in this week’s Friday Fun post.

Since I’ve been here declaring my love of Mexico AND Hallowe’en, I thought it’d be nice, not to mention the right time of year, to look at the Day of the Dead. It’s hard not to be drawn to its imagery; who couldn’t love those cool, sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate sugar skulls?

The Mexican custom of El día de los muertos, the Day of the Dead, may seem like Hallowe’en to a lot of people. The celebration traditionally starts at midnight the night of October 31 and the festivities, as with Hallowe’en, are full of images of death. But they do have different origins and attitudes from each other: Hallowe’en characterizes death as something frightening. But in el día de los muertos, death and the memories of loved ones are to be celebrated. El día de los muertos, November 2, is one of the biggest holidays in Mexico. During the time of the Aztecs, a month-long summer celebration was overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, ‘the Lady of the Dead’.

Why do people celebrate in cemeteries in this tradition? To be with the souls of the departed and build altars offering the departed’s favorite food and drink, as well as photos and keepsakes of their lost loved one. The idea is to encourage visits by the departed, so their souls will hear the prayers and comments the living make about them. That’s right, we want to know what they’re saying about us even in death…
Celebrations can have real humor as people remember funny moments and anecdotes about their absent family member.

But people don’t just gather in cemeteries. People also make altars to welcome departed spirits home. Festivities include traditional foods such as pan de muerto, bread of the dead, which sometimes has a miniature skeleton hidden inside it.
In the pre-Hispanic era, skulls were trophies displayed in rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. It is common in Mexico to see white skulls made of sugar to decorate and offer for the Day of the Dead.

So the three days of celebration can go like this: families clean and decorate graves; they visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate the graves with ofrendas, offerings, which often include orange Mexican marigolds.

In contemporary Mexico, this name is sometimes replaced with the term Flor de Muerto, Flower of the Dead. The flowers too, are meant to attract the souls of the dead to the offerings.

It seems to me to be a lovely tradition, one in which you don’t just make peace with death; you party with it. And honor your missing loved ones at the same time of course.

Many international big cities outside of Mexico have Day of the Dead events this weekend. Check your local listings for events in LA, Tucson, Chicago, Toronto, London and more…

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