Everybody’s heard of Day of the Dead, and we’ve all certainly seen the painted sugar skulls and costumes that people don for the celebrations. But, what do we really know about the Mexican holiday?
Day of the Dead is celebrated each year on November 2nd, and one thing’s for sure – it’s not just a Mexican version of Halloween. It’s so much more.
From Day of the Dead traditions to some of the more intriguing cultural aspects surrounding the holiday, we’ve come up with a list of seven unique Day of the Dead facts so that you know what you’re talking about come November.
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But, it’s celebrated all over Latin America. Even though it’s been commercialised in recent years, even by people outside of Latin America, it’s considered to be a reaffirmation of indigenous life and culture.
The origins of the Day of the Dead celebration began with the Aztec, Toltec, and Nahua people. It’s believed that they developed a sort of ceremony that allowed them to show their respects to the dead through mourning. The idea is that on the Day of the Dead, spirits temporarily return to Earth.
The holiday centres around an altar, or an ofrenda. Families build these at home in order to act as a conduit through which to welcome back spirits. Naturally, this is where they place offerings in order to entice spirits back to the world.
The offerings include things like water and food, as it’s believed that the journey is long and tiring to get back from the spirit world. People will also usually place family photos and candles.
If you look at any photo of a Day of the Dead celebration, it’s likely that you’ll see lots of marigolds. These brightly-coloured flowers are what help guide spirits back to Earth. You’ll find that locals scatter marigolds from the altars to graveyards in order to guide spirits back to their place of rest.
Papel picado, or pierced paper, is also a common Day of the Dead decoration you’re likely to see. While it’s common to see this kind of decoration year-round, it’s particularly important during the celebration as it represents the fragility of life.
Originally, calaveras, which means skulls, were literary poems that people wrote in order to essentially make fun of the living. Today, they still read them out loud on television and radio programs during celebrations.
However, in the early 1900s, a political cartoonist drew up a sketch that personified death. The result? The ever-famous Calavera Garbancera.
In 1947, Diego Rivera included the woman one of his most famous murals, named her Catrina, and the image has stuck ever since. It’s become the symbol of the celebration, and it’s why you’ll see everybody donning the famous skull facepaint come November 1st.
Sure, if you head somewhere super touristy then you might be able to buy a sugar skull that’s edible, but that’s not really what they’re for. Day of the Dead skulls are actually part of the offering that people leave at altars.
Sugar art in Mexico dates back to the 17th century, and it’s a strong tradition still today. Families write the name of a deceased on the forehead of each skull in icing and adorn it with elegant accoutrements.
If you’ve never tried pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, then hop on a plane straight to Mexico right now and participate in a Day of the Dead celebration. This sweet bread is usually made with anise and decorated with bones and skulls.
Day of the Dead traditions denote that if you see teardrops on the bread then the death might have been particularly sorrowful or painful.
Other common foods include atole, which is similar to a porridge. Traditionally, people make atole from cornflour and spice it with vanilla and cinnamon.
If your only knowledge of this holiday and similar cultural traditions is from watching the movie Coco, then don’t worry. Latino artists and cultural leaders have repeatedly said that the movie truly captured Mexican tradition.
While the film isn’t necessarily a Day of the Dead film specifically, it’s a good place to start if you’re looking for a general introduction to the themes and customs.
Or, book a flight to Mexico and participate in an authentic Day of the Dead celebration for yourself. That’s truly the only way to learn about what the historic day actually means for Mexican culture and heritage.