With Halloween fast approaching you are bound to see people on the streets in costume, trick or treating, going to parties and various other things associated with the religious holiday but more and more there is a crossover of Halloween and the Mexican religious festival of Dias de Los Muertos or Day of The Dead and the two are becoming confused in many minds as cultural appropriation takes hold. Many traditions and customs are specific to the event and should not be used in jest or for fun. So, to try and emphasize greater cultural understanding and mark out the differences between this festival and Halloween, we look at some of the customs and traditions of The Day of The Dead.
Taking place annually in Mexico on November 1st and 2nd, the festivities actually begin a day after Halloween and has its roots in Mesoamerican culture despite now being widely considered a Catholic practice. A celebration of both life and death, the festival is to remember that people who have been lost but also to celebrate their lives as well as the celebration of being alive.
1. Creating Altars
Constructing an altar to those who have passed in the family is something many Mexicans do on Dias de Los Muertos as they decorate these tables with colorful offerings (known as ofrendas) to the dead as well as with religious icons, garlands, personal items and other various items, these altars are mostly built at home as a private acknowledgement of those who are no longer with us.
However, some communities will build these altars right next to the gravesides of loved ones or next to public buildings with planning often taking months and producing spectacular shows of color and light.
2. Making Ofrendas to The Dead
Going hand-in-hand with the creation of altars to those who have passed, Ofrendas are offerings to the dead in order to encourage their spirits to come home and listen to the prayers of their families. Often these ofrendas will be of those things they enjoyed in life so dead adults will be left cigarettes, alcohol, and even soccer shirts whilst deceased children might be afforded toys and candy.
Candles and a sweet bread are a common ofrenda to all and altars are often bedecked with these gifts.
3. Use of Mexican Marigolds
During these celebrations, the golden-orange flower known as cempasuchiles or Mexican marigolds will be everywhere. This is because they only flower during the rainy season in Mexico and so directly precede The Day of The Dead and are believed to guide loved one’s soul back to the world of the living.
Wreaths and crowns of these flowers will be made as well as using them on altars as ofrendas.
4. Sugar Skulls
Highly decorated skulls made out of sugar are often made or bought for the celebrations and decorated with bright patterns and often the manes of the deceased. They are brought to altars and gravesides as ofrendas as well as eaten as a treat and also come in biscuit and chocolate form or they are traditionally just sugar and icing.
These are the most emblematic icons of Dias de Los Muertos and have global recognition as a sign of the festivities and Mexico itself.
5. Holding Graveside Vigils
Although many will stay at home during the festivities to remember the deceased in their own unique way, some will also head to the gravesides of those who are in the land of the dead and will take candles and tequila with them and will drink and talk to the dead loved ones as they stay with them throughout the evening.
Some may also lay wreaths of Mexican marigolds or set up altars at the tombs of the deceased as well as at home.
6. Baking and Consuming Pan de Muerto
A sweet bread that is often left as an ofrenda, Pan de Muerto is a very light and orange flavored bread and is to Dias de Los Muerto what Mince Pies are to Christmas or Pumpkin Pie to Thanksgiving. It usually has a skull or bone decorations on the top of it and a layer of sugar coating the top of it to make it an extremely sweet treat.
Often served with hot chocolate or a creamy, corn-based drink called atole, it wouldn't be The Day of The Dead without the Bread of The Dead.
7. Grave Cleaning and Decorating
Surprisingly at odds with what you may associate with graveyards, they often have a jovial and joyful atmosphere on Dias de Los Muertos as families gather to clean the graves of those now gone before decorating them with the Mexican marigolds or erecting altars. It is all part of the practice of showing respect to the dead and celebrating their lives.
Still part of the family, the dead are not truly gone when they cross to the other side in Mexican culture.
8. Displays of Calacas
Statues and sculptures of skeletons, the calacas are a massive part of the tradition of The Day of The Dead as they are clothed in traditional Mexican wear, usually highly regal and decorative, they come in many styles but represent the celebration of death and not a mourning as is often seen in other cultures.
Often displayed along streets and on private properties, these skeletons are not to be feared but rather embraced and acknowledged.
9. Catrina Parades
Although many places will hold a Catrina parade, the grandest undoubtedly takes place in the capital of Mexico City people dress up in formal wear with top hats and dancing dresses and have decorative skull makeup and face paint on themselves as they dance and parade through the streets in outfits appropriate to the occasion.
Often with the garlands of the Mexican marigolds on their heads or around necks, this is far from a somber parade.
10. Sharing Stories of The Dead
In order to not forget those who have passed, the custom of telling funny stories or witty anecdotes about them came about with the notion in mind that they would rather not be remembered with a heavy heart but painted in a picture of joy and happiness. As such, it is quite customary to talk openly about those who have gone and in a positive manner.
Intimate and affectionate, jokes are also not amiss as people celebrate what has gone and what is to come.