We are seeing more and more about the mysterious Día de los Muertos every year around Halloween, but many people are still “in the dark” about what it is for and what is represents. I’m here to settle a few of those uncertainties!
When, where and who?
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a two-day festival originally from Mexico held on November 1st and 2nd. On these days two Catholic holidays are also celebrated – All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The festival has expanded significantly and is held not just in Mexico, but also in many Latin American countries, as well as among Latin American communities in other countries, and has even more recently spread to being recognised in non-Spanish speaking countries, such as the UK.
What is it all about?
Día de los Muertos is all about honouring the dead through a series of entertainment and lively celebrations. The deceased are seen to be insulted by mourning and sadness and they prefer their loved ones to celebrate their lives. Their philosophy is that death is simply a natural continuum of life and that on this special day the deceased should be awoken from the eternal sleep and brought back to the community so that they can share experiences with the people they spent their life with.
How did it start and why is it not originally celebrated in the US and Canada?
Día de los Muertos is a combination of Aztec and Catholic rituals and it brought about by the Spanish conquistadores. It if often thought that the reason why Día de los Muertos is not traditionally celebrated in countries such as the USA and Canada is because they were colonised by Protestants, whereas Latin America was colonised by Catholics and thus the influences were very different. All Saints Day is a holiday that is recognised by Catholics and the Spanish colonisation approach was significantly different from that of the British.
Why the skulls and masks?
Half decorated masks represent the duality of human beauty vs. death – the flesh has disappeared but the cultural significance has not. Likewise, people dress up wearing shells and noisemakers on their clothes. The shells are said to wake up the dead and keep them close to the people who are celebrating their lives during the festival. Furthermore, it is important for music to be played, for the families of the lost loved ones to clean and decorate their graves and for the dead to be honoured with ofrendas, which could be anything from flowers and candles to food and personal belongings. Esqueletos and calaveras (skeletons and skulls), candied sweets, parades and masked dolls are just another part of this sea of celebration and entertainment.
What is commonly misunderstood?
November 1st is actually called “Día de los Inocentes” and is a day for respecting and celebrating the lives of children who have died. On this day the graves are covered in white orchids to represent innocence and naivety. November 2nd is “Día de los Muertos” which is the day to respect adults who have died. Graves are decorated with bright orange colours and marigolds. There are many places to enjoy Día de los Muertos celebrations in the UK as it becomes more of “a thing”, so don’t miss out on this cultural event and no doubt, a chance to practice your Spanish!