Origins of The Day Of The Dead : an emblematic Mexican Tradition

What's The Day Of The Dead?

Every year on 2 November Mexico celebrates the "Día de los Muertos". This is a bank holiday there, on which the deceased is remembered. Calaveras and skulls are out everywhere. The special thing about it is that it is not a day of mourning. The Dia de los Muertos is rather characterised by colourful celebrations, colourful processions and a joy that makes you feel alive. The festivities are not actually about one day. They already begin on 31 October, the day on which Halloween is celebrated in the USA. From then on, the festivals and customs extend over the 1st of November, also known as All Saints' Day, and end with the actual festival day on the 2nd of November, All Souls' Day. In the Catholic Church, All Souls' Day is also the feast day on which all the dead are remembered.



This is how the day of the dead came about...

Already in the time of the Aztecs there were customs to commemorate the deceased. The deceased were not mourned, but celebrated, because death was not seen as the end of life, but only as the end of earthly existence. The dead moved on and lived on in other spheres. The special form of commemorating the dead in Mexico goes back to these customs. Due to the Spanish domination that brought the Catholic faith to Latin America, these customs were mixed with Catholic days of remembrance for the dead to create what is known today as Dia de Los Muertos. The traditional belief is that on this day the dead return as spirits to the world of the living to spend a day with their family members. The holiday is therefore a gathering of the whole family. It is therefore considered a joyful event and not a reason for mourning and depression.

Gifts and food for the dead

As it is assumed that the dead travel from their resting places to their families, it is common practice to provide food for the travellers. The dead are therefore given gifts on a kind of altar (called Ofrenda). The altar is festively decorated with flowers, often with photographs of the deceased and sometimes with souvenirs that remind us of the deceased. To this end, smoke candles are lit, which are said to have a purifying effect. The gifts include various drinks and food. The so-called bread for the dead, the Pan de Muertos, is particularly popular. This is a bread dish that is decorated with dough so that it looks like bones and skulls.

The traditional Day of the Dead Costume -Skeleton disguise.

The skull is the most famous and central symbol of the Mexican commemoration day. It is considered the main symbol and is therefore used in all areas of festivities. But the most famous is the peculiar custom of the Mexicans to disguise themselves as skeletons. The traditional Day of the Dead costume is characterised by a distinctive face painting, which makes one's own face look like a skull. All kinds of disguises are worn for this purpose. These often consist of pretty dresses for the women and stylish suits for the men. The engraver José Guadalupe Posada created a satirical figure, the so-called La Catrina, at the time of Spanish rule. This figure depicts a wealthy Spanish woman in skeleton form. Originally it was intended as a mockery. Today many women traditionally dress up as La Catrina.

Basically the skull is painted in black and white but nowadays it is available in different colours. Just as colourful are the costumes that go with it. The feasts for the dead that take place all over the country are a real explosion of colours. Skulls made of sugar can also be found everywhere and cardboard skeletons are hung on the houses. The festivities are not only colourful but also noisy. There is plenty of dancing and singing to Mexican sounds. The festivities end on the evening of November 2nd with many people moving to the cemeteries. So they accompany their deceased family members back to their resting places.


Cultural heritage and global dissemination

In Mexico today, the Day of the Dead is no longer celebrated only by the descendants of the Aztecs and other original peoples, as well as by followers of the Catholic faith. Instead, it has arrived in the whole of Mexican society across all religions. This holiday therefore has two great characteristics. On the one hand, there are traditions of several millennia of human history in it. Secondly, it represents an openness to the world that welcomes all religions and origins. This is why it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008. It thus belongs to the representative immaterial cultural heritage of mankind. For UNESCO, the preservation of this tradition is particularly important, especially since the American Halloween custom is increasingly popular in Mexico these days.

      However, the custom is no longer celebrated only in Mexico. All over Latin America, such festivities are celebrated today. There are also various organisations in many other parts of the world that organise annual parades, processions and celebrations for the Day of the Dead. One of the largest such events takes place in New York every year.