“The one that occupies the most space is not the largest.
The largest is the one that leaves the most emptiness in their absence”
The flower stalls are full of bright-orange cempasúchil (marigold), paths of their orange petals start to form on the outside of houses, papel picado (tissue paper cut in intricate shapes of skulls and parties) adorns the streets in every colour, photographs of deceased loved ones are put out proudly - with no pain attached, only celebration. It’s November 1st in Mexico and it’s beautiful to see.
It’s not hard to believe that this tradition has transcended Mexican streets and towns to the Western world. It looks beautiful and, even without understanding it, the mere sight of it oozes tradition and hope. Everyone knows it and loves it. Loving the look of an ancient tradition is not quite enough to celebrate it though, is it? So here you go. If you want to celebrate Day of the Dead you may as well do it right.
THE ORIGINS AND HISTORY OF DAY OF THE DEAD.
Día de Muertos first originated in prehispanic Mexico. The tradition was very different to the one celebrated today - in fact, it used to happen in August (or March, October and July, depending on the community’s calendar). Most cultures in old Mesoamerica believed that death is the transition from our earth to another realm in the universe, regardless of your moral standing while living.
When colonisation arrived in America, they attempted to homogenise the population into Catholicism. However, as is demonstrated by the fact that a lot of communities in Mexico and Latin America still live by the tradition of their prehispanic ancestors, they didn’t fully succeed with a lot of areas. Day of the Dead became something else, something to appease the Europeans into thinking it was Catholic and then, slowly, it became a part of Mexico’s religious traditions. The day moved to November 1 and 2, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
HOW WE CELEBRATE TODAY
There is no one way to celebrate Day of the Dead. In fact, traditions vary between communities and towns all over Mexico. The one thing they all definitely have in common is what is at the core of the celebration: the return of our loved ones to our home. Nothing sinister or creepy about it. Unlike Halloween, Día de Muertos truly is a bright and colourful celebration.
Here are some basic pointers:
The Altar (or Ofrenda)
The altar is the one thing you are set not to miss if you ever go anywhere in Mexico during Day of the Dead. Ofrendas are laid everywhere, from offices to schools and shops. Traditionally, however, altars were set up in homes and graveyards.
The main things not to miss in an altar are:
- Water to quench the thirst after the journey from the afterlife
- A path of cempasúchil flowers so the dead find their way
- Papel picado in any colours but particularly yellow and purple to signify life and death
- Candles to represent each soul
- Food that the dead used to enjoy in life, including their favourite mexican dishes such as tortillas, mole and sweets. Always add some Pan de Muerto, everyone loves a little of that. There is also always a bottle of something on the altar, grandpa’s favourite mezcal, for example.
- Copal allows smoke to surround the altar and deter evil spirits
- Salt so the dead’s body doesn’t decompose on the journey
- Ashes for the soul to cleanse
- Toys for the kids
- Pictures of the dead so they know they’re in the right place
Pan de Muerto and Sugar Skulls: the food
As with every part of Mexican culture, food is one the most important parts of the celebration. Pan de Muerto is a circular sweet bread decorated with bones made of dough. The circle is meant to represent the circle of life.
Sugar skulls (a kid’s favourite part of Day of the Dead) are just as they sound: a moulded skull made purely out of sugar and decorated with colourful paper and dye. Traditionally, everyone in a family is meant to have their own sugar skull marked with their name.
Catrinas and Calaveras
One of the most artistic parts of Día de Muertos are the literary Calaveras. They are short, funny poems written sarcastically in newspapers to “make fun of the living”. It’s a tradition to have them printed during Day of the Dead, often about famous political figures, and for children to write them at school.
In the early 20th century, José Guadalupe Posada created a cartoon of a skeleton wearing an elegant Parisian dress to accompany the in-print Calaveras. His intention was to show that no matter money or class, we are all the same when we die. In 1974, Diego Rivera took this idea and called it a Catrina - one of the most famous symbols for Day of the Dead today.
Do you feel a more ready to celebrate Day of the Dead? There are hundreds of ways to do it, and everyone in Mexico does it a little bit differently. But the underlying theme is the same: why mourn the inevitability of death if you can celebrate it? As long as that intrinsic idea stays the same - you’re probably good to celebrate. After all, it is a tradition that has changed over and over again - and, contrary to our beliefs, isn’t that what tradition is all about?