Get your fright on with Mexico’s Day of the Dead

While the rest of the world gathers to kick off Halloween, the Mexican people are coming together to celebrate an altogether different, albeit equally grisly, festival – the Day of the Dead.

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Sandra Sparrowhawk | Oct 31, 2019

On the Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead, or locally as el Día de los Muertos, families and friends gather across the country and overseas to remember and honor their deceased relatives in support of the latters’ spiritual journeys in the afterlife.

However, the Mesoamerican ritual is – in stark contrast to both its name and appearance – anything but a mournful occasion. Rather, it is a colorful, joyous celebration of life centered around love and respect for the departed.

Lore has it that the ancient Aztecs regarded the mourning of the dead as being offensive, and thought that tears only troubled and complicated the spirit’s journey in the afterlife.

As a result, the three-day festival, along its preceding parade, is laden with a variety of food stalls, markets, performances and music – all to represent the joys of living.

Origin

The roots of the Día de los Muertos, which is commemorated throughout Mexico and woven into Mexican heritage all over the world, date back to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead) some 2,500-3,000 years ago.

In Aztec mythology, the Lady of the Dead, who herself was sacrificed as an infant, was believed to rule over all afterlife alongside her husband Mictlāntēcutli (Lord of the Dead). Together, they watched over the bones of the departed and oversaw a multitude of ancient festivals honoring the dead.

Eventually, these festivals fused with European religion and contemporary Spanish traditions before reemerging in the form of the modern-day Día de los Muertos.

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Today, the festival’s signature calaveras, or sugar skulls, are handmade from either cane sugar or clay and laid out at the altars (ofrendas) as a welcome meal for visiting spirits – and it’s a costly affair for rural-based families. Many indigenous families are said to spend over twice their monthly income on the event, ensuring that only the crème de la crème of food is offered to the visitors.

Making certain that the spirits are appeased and welcomed in an appropriate manner is believed to bring good fortune, protection, health and wisdom to the living.

As such, the calaveras’ vibrant colors aren’t a matter of mere chance, but rather carry symbolic meaning, each color representing a different part of the event.

Purple, one of the more important colors, signifies pain, grief and suffering, and is often seen in candles around Mexico City. Red represents the blood of life, pink signifies celebration, while white stands for purity and renewal.

The colors orange and yellow, representing the sun and a new day, are believed to be the colors most easily spotted by the returning spirits. Marigolds, which themselves symbolize death, are oftentimes used to mark the trails leading up to the individual altars in a bid to avoid the souls getting lost on their way home.

REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

Today, it is widely believed that the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31st and the spirits of departed children (angelitos), for whom toys and candies are placed at the altars, are the first to reunite with their families for one day.

On November 2nd, the souls of the deceased adults are able to join in on the festivities and enjoy the food selection, typically consisting of bread (pan de muerto), tortillas and water, that has been prepared for their reception.

One of the festival’s highlights is without a doubt the 2019 Grand Day of the Dead Parade, which takes place in the streets of Mexico City on November 2nd. It has been announced that this year’s festival will host a special delegation from China, which will perform a dragon dance as well as a similar, native ritual to Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

REUTERS/Alan Ortega

The festival will also see the procession of a second parade on October 27th, which will feature three allegorical floats, ten giant puppets and 24 hand-pushed floats. The 2019 International Day of the Dead Parade was brought to life In 2016 and was inspired by the James Bond movie Spectre.

Though the event is traditionally a Mexican holiday, it has enjoyed widespread international popularity and in 2008 was recognized by UNESCO by being inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The three-day festival is held each year from October 31st to November 2nd.

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