When Halloween is over, the Day of the Dead begins. Unlike the cheesiness of the 31 October, there is real meaning to this holiday as Daisy Cropper explains
A centuries-old festival, the Day of the Dead isn’t a gloomy day of grieving and neither is it a holiday filled with horror as the name may suggest. Once the ghosts and ghouls of Halloween have disappeared it’s onto the more serious stuff.
From the 1 to the 2 of November, Mexicans celebrate the Día de los Muertos, or to you and I, the Day of the Dead. This name conjures up frightful images of zombies, demons and the un-dead, but this common misconception couldn’t be further from the truth.
The day’s origins are steeped in ancient history, and the pre-Hispanic Tarasco people of Michoacán’s belief that the dead can return home to their loved ones on one day, each year. Indigenous people believed that souls do not die, but continue to live in Mictan – or a 'special place to rest'. It is in this place that they rest until they can return home to visit their relatives.
Before the Spaniards arrived in Latin America, the locals celebrated the return of the souls between the summer months of July and August. When the invasion came, the festivities were changed to coincide with the Catholic festivals of All Saints’ Day and All Souls' Day.
In modern-day Mexico the two cultures are combined: on November 1st, the souls of children are celebrated and on November 2nd, the souls of adults are remembered, alongside the Catholic traditions. On the night between the two, some families hold vigils beside the graves of their lost relatives and friends.
As one of Mexico’s most important holidays, festivities are taken seriously. The locals begin preparations from the third week of October and take care to harvest the cempasuchitl flower, or the ‘flower of the dead’.
Celebrations in Mexico are not like the tacky-take on the original Pagan holiday of Halloween, but instead honour the lives of loved ones – with relatives decorating headstones and graves, while serving food, drink and playing music. It is believed this guides the souls back to their families and helps them find their way home.
Even though it has been dubbed the 'Festival of Death', it is more of a joyous occasion than a sombre one. Around Mexico City, locals compete to build the most impressive ofendra – or altar – and elaborate structures can be seen all over the city: from doorways to metro stations and public markets. Tasty treats like chocolate coffins and candy skulls are sold in many of the city's markets, and grand parades of skeletons can be seen marching through the streets.
The festival's symbol – the skull – pops up all over the place in the run-up to November. Traditionally, friends and relatives exchange skulls before the first day of the month; made from wood, clay or paper, they're sometimes crammed with sweets, chocolates or treats.
The Day of Dead is something unique. For those visiting Mexico in the preceding weeks, it is a time of joy and jubilation but also remembrance and a celebration not to be missed.