When is the Day of the Dead?
Traditions of the Day of the Dead
Known in Spanish as ‘El Día de Muertos‘, this unofficial but widely observed holiday is celebrated on 2 November each year.
Every year, on 1 November (All Saints Day) and 2 November (All Souls’ Day), something unique takes place in many areas of Mexico: Day of the Dead festivities. While it’s strange for most of us to accept the fact that “death” and “festivities” can go hand-in-hand, for most Mexicans, the two are intricately entwined. This all stems from the ancient indigenous peoples of Mexico (Purepecha, Nahua, Totonac, and Otomí) who believed that the souls of the dead return each year to visit with their living relatives – to eat, drink and be merry. Just like they did when they were living.
Did you know?
Day of the Dead used to be celebrated over the summer, and it dates back hundreds of years to an Aztec festival and the goddess Mictecacihuatl
Tempered somewhat by the arrival of the Spaniards in the 15th century, current practice calls for the deceased children (little angels) to be remembered on the previous day (November 1st, All Saints Day) with toys and colorful balloons adorning their graves. And the next day, All Souls Day, adults who have died are honored with displays of the departed’s favorite food and drinks, as well as ornamental and personal belongings. Flowers, particularly the zempasúchil (an Indian word for a special type of marigold) and candles, which are placed on the graves, are supposed to guide the spirits home to their loved ones.
Other symbols include the elaborately-decorated pan de muerto (a rich coffee cake decorated with meringues made to look like bones), skull-shaped candies and sweets, marizpan death figures and papier maché skeletons and skulls. (the Nahua speaking peoples of pre-Columbian Mexico saw the skull as a symbol of life – not death.) Today, these macabre symbols and other similar items fill the shops and candy stalls by mid-October. During this time, homes are often decorated in the same manner as the graves.
This may all seem morbid and somewhat ghoulish to those who are not part of that culture. But, for Mexicans who believe in the life/death/rebirth continuum, it’s all very natural. this is not to say that they treat death lightly. They don’t. It’s just that they recognize it, mock it, even defy it. Death is part of life and, as such, it’s representative of the Mexican spirit and tradition which says: “Don’t take anything lying down – even death!”
First the graves and altars are prepared by the entire family, whose members bring the departed’s favorite food and drink. Candles are lit, the ancient incense copal is burned, prayers and chants for the dead are intoned and then drinks and food are consumed in a party/picnic-like atmosphere. At 6:00 pm, the bells begin to ring (every 30 seconds), summoning the dead. They ring throughout the night. At sunrise, the ringing stops and those relatives who have kept the night-long vigil, go home.
Did you know?
Poems and drawings are sometimes created to honour the dead on the Day of the Dead. These short poems are known as calaveras, which means skulls
The most vivid and moving Day of the Dead celebrations takes place on the island of Janitzio in Lago de Pátzcuaro. Here, at the crack of dawn on 1 November, the Purepechan Indians get the festivities going with a ceremonial duck hunt. At midnight, the cooked duck and other zesty edibles are brought to the cemetery in the flickering light of thousands of candles. Those visitors who come are in for an awesome spectacle as the women pray and the men chant throughout the chilly night. Other candle-lit ceremonies take place in the nearby towns of Tzintzuntzan (the ancient capital of the Purepechan people), Jaráuaro and Erongarícuaro.