If you haven’t grown up in a Hispanic household or in Latin America, you’d be forgiven for confusing Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with Halloween. While both holidays are dedicated to the dearly departed, they are celebrated in very different ways. In lieu of our usual full-fledged celebrations with our otherworldly amigos on the other side, here are some things to know about Mexico’s most religious holiday, devoted to the art of remembering.
#1: Dia de los Muertos is not Mexican Halloween
Celebrated on November 2nd, this two-day festival is rooted in indigenous Aztec rituals and Catholic rites introduced by Spanish colonizers during the Conquest of Mexico. Those who have passed are joyously honoured with parades in the streets as well as lively celebrations at home and in the cemeteries that fondly commemorate their lives. Dia de los Muertos is not a mournful or sorrowful commemoration of the dearly departed, but a joyful reunion of loved ones returning from Mictlán—the realm of the dead where souls rest—to visit their living relatives and share a day together, as a result of the veil between the two realms being lifted.
In stark contrast, Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic pagan festival Samhain, historically observed as a Gaelic seasonal festival heralding the arrival of winter or the ‘darker’ half of the year. Pagan spirits, fairies and souls of the deceased who crossed over into the realm of the living on this day were received with food and drink offerings as a show of hospitality, in hope of warding off any ill-intent or trickery afoot upon their households. People also disguised themselves in costumes to misle spirits into thinking they were monsters, so that the spirits would pass their thresholds without stopping. Today, these traditional practices of guising and setting out offerings have evolved into the modern day trick-or-treating, and dressing up in costumes in homage of the spooky atmosphere.
#2: Death is recognised as a natural part of the human experience
Although death is considered a taboo subject in Western culture, death is regarded as a process just as natural as birth in many other cultures, including Mexican culture. Dia de los Muertos is a day to reconnect with ancestors by honouring their memory with ofrendas (altars) decorated with offerings that will guide their souls back to their homes. These private home altars must have at least two levels to represent the earth and sky, but can range from three levels representing heaven, earth and purgatory, to seven levels. Each ofrenda is uniquely decorated with objects holding personal significance or history to the deceased such as their portraits, personal memorabilia and their favourite food and drinks, but must also include representations of the elements earth, air, fire and water.
Other offerings typically seen on ofrendas typically include calavera (sugar skulls) painted in a way that represents their personality, pan de muerto (a special sweet round bread decorated with skull and bone-shaped dough pieces) representing the cycle of life and death and salt to purify their souls during their journey in the land of the living. The intense aroma from petal pathways made of cempasúchitl (vibrant orange and purple Aztec marigold flowers) and the light from lit candles also help guide their returning ancestors home.
#3: Going Xolo with the Mexican hairless dog on Dia de los Muertos
Just as Hades has Cerberus, Xolotl the Mexican god of lightning has Xoloitzcuintli, known to amigos outside of Mexico as the Mexican hairless dog. According to Aztec mythology, Xolotl created Xoloitzcuintli from a sliver of the same Bone of Life that mankind came from. This noble, affectionate and highly intelligent species traditionally accompanied their owners when they passed to help them cross the Chiconauhuapan river to reach Mictlán, the realm of the dead. Today, ceramic Xoloitzcuintli figures placed on the altar suffice as a spirit guide for the souls of the returning ancestors.
#4: The first day of the festival is dedicated to remembering children
Souls of deceased children are honoured on the first day of Dia de los Muertos, specifically referred to as El Día de los Inocentes or El Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Innocents or Day of the Little Angels). If the child died in a particularly violent manner or of unnatural causes, their souls are considered to have been traumatised, having lost the “innocence” of childhood and are then typically remembered on the second day along with adults. In some regions such as Sierra Norte de Oaxaca, bells tinkle gently from midnight to welcome and guide the souls of children back to their families, in addition to toys and salt figurines left on the ofrendas.
Photo credit: Ariel da Silvia, from Fotografia.
#5: Party rock is in the grave tonight
As the souls of the dearly departed make their way back to the land of the living, it is customary to hold an all-night velada (vigil) in anticipation of their return. Although they can’t be seen by the living, their presence is felt upon their arrival. Family and friends gather in candlelit cemeteries that are elaborately decorated, waiting for the souls of their loved ones to return to them. To encourage their souls to be present, they often share memorable stories, funny anecdotes and prayers, bringing energy and life to the cemetery that night.
Get into the spirit of Dia de los Muertos with our film review of the award-winning Pixar film Coco, here and check out how our Locos celebrate Dia de los Muertos here. While you’re at it, visit our ofrendas at Super Loco Robertson Quay, Super Loco Customs House and Lucha Loco, built by our amigos at the Mexican Association of Singapore.