Day of the Dead
Another 1st November arrives and while I am doing my best to recover from all the spooky Halloween fun and games of last night, I also take time to honour and respect the passing of all our loved ones…..especially my father, who died on this very day, All Saints Day, in 1996.
All Saints’ Day is the day for honouring children and infants who have died. All Souls’ Day falls on 2nd November and is the day for honouring adults who have died. This distinction explains why, in Mexico, celebrations for the Day of the Dead run over more than one day, running from 31st October to the 2nd November. The Day of the Dead, or “El Dia de los Muertos” in Spanish, is a three-day holiday in Mexico – a place I hold close to my heart, and the fact that my father died on All Saints’ Day simply reinforces its significance for me. Instead of it being a sombre occasion, the holiday is a joyous celebration of life and death, with people celebrating by creating altars, tending gravesites and taking part in festivals and parades.
Skulls and skeletons are central to the Day of the Dead motifs. In Mexico, bakeries display skull-shaped cookies and cakes in their storefront windows. Street vendors sell an assortment of items, including skeleton jewellery, figurines and marionettes. Local markets and shops offer sugar coffins with skeletons inside them. People can purchase “calacas”, which are wooden or paper toy skeletons. Calacas are often humorous in appearance; the toy skeletons may hold guitars or drive cars. Farmers sell orange marigolds, an important autumn flower associated with the Day of the Dead. The ancient Aztecs, whose beliefs about death are preserved in the Day of the Dead, referred to marigolds as the flowers of the dead.
Similar to Halloween customs, Mexican children travel around their neighbourhoods in costumes and collect candy and fruit from neighbours. Instead of saying “trick or treat,” the children say, “calaveras,” which is Spanish for skulls. Some children may carry a coffin with a real boy or girl inside dressed up as a dead person. Passersby toss coins, candy or fruit into the open coffin.
Families who celebrate the Day of the Dead often arrange an altar on a table in their home. On the altar they place “ofrendas” (offerings) of pictures of deceased loved ones along with candles, incense, marigolds and the favourite foods of the deceased. A traditional ofrenda is “pan de Muertos”, a bread baked into the shape of skulls, people or animals. Many Mexicans believe that when children die, they become little angels, “angelitos,” and return to visit their families on the 1st November. To honour and welcome “los angelitos”, families arrange on their altars, toys and photographs of the deceased children.
On the 2nd November, people celebrate the Day of the Dead by attending parades and festivities that include music, food and people dressed up in masks and costumes. Families often trek to cemeteries to visit their deceased loved ones. Family members tidy up graves, “las tumbas,” by raking, sweeping or weeding around them. Flowers, such as marigolds, are placed on the graves. In the evening, families partake in picnics in the cemetery by spreading out tablecloths of food near graves. They make sure to leave extra food for the souls of the dead. Families light candles around the graves, share stories about deceased loved ones, sing, dance and play music.
So many different customs around the world….some we follow as our tradition and some we watch, baffled in confusion……no matter how we do it, as much as the grief and mourning may still be with us, it’s the celebration of a loved one’s life that we must treasure forever.