The Day of the Dead
An Irishman’s Diary on a South American festival
A Mexican “Day of the Dead” altar. Photograph: Getty Images
All societies and cultures remember their dead and they remember them in different ways. In Mexico, South America and Hispanic communities around the world, the festival of “Día de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead remembers the dead in lively ways.
Underpinning the festival is the belief that it would be insulting to the dead to commemorate them with mourning and grief. Instead their lives are celebrated with food, drink, parties and activities they enjoyed in life. On the Day of the Dead, the dearly departed are part of the community once again, called from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.
Although part of the festival coincides and has similarities with our Halloween, it does not see death as something terrifying and to be feared but as part of a natural continuum with life. The skeletons and skulls that appear everywhere during the Day of the Dead are almost always portrayed as enjoying life, dressed in fancy clothes and partaking in entertaining situations.
The festival in Mexico runs from October 31st to November 2nd. It probably has its origins in an ancient Aztec festival dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld or Lady of the Dead, a festival that lasted for a full month.
In modern Mexico, November 1st is “Día de los Inocentes” (Day of the Innocents) or “Día de los Angelitos” (Day of the Little Angels), on which dead children are commemorated, and November 2nd, Día de los Muertos, remembers deceased adults. The festival coincides with the Catholic feasts of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
On the Day of the Dead, people go to cemeteries to be at the resting places of their loved ones and they build private altars (“ofrendas”) in which they put their favourite foods and drinks as well as photos and other things which belonged to them during their lives. Christian symbols are also common, such as a cross and a statue or picture of the Blessed Virgin. Prayers are said for the dead and anecdotes and stories are told about them, the intention being that the souls will return to hear the prayers and what the living are saying about them.
The graves are cleaned and decorated during the festival and the orange Mexican flowers, marigolds, are placed on the altars. In modern Mexican the marigold is often called the “flor de muerto” or flower of the dead, and it is believed that the flowers attract the souls of the departed to the offerings placed on the graves. Offerings include toys for dead children and sweets, food and drinks such as tequila, mescal and pulque for adults. In some parts of Mexico, people spend all night beside the graves of their dead relatives.
The “calavera” (skull) and “calaca” (skeleton) are common symbols of the festival. Chocolate or sugar skulls are popular, and another food widely associated with the Day of the Dead is “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead), a sweet egg bread that can be flat or shaped into skulls and often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones. Candied sweets in the shape of skulls or skeletons are also popular.
Other Latin American countries have their own traditions. Giant kites are built and flown in Guatemala and a special dish, “fiambre”, is made only for this day; it is a salad with as many as 50 different ingredients (cold meats, corn, onions, beets, cheeses, eggs, olives and other vegetables and meats). In Ecuador, families gather in graveyards for a day-long remembrance of their dead and traditional foods are consumed. “Colada morada”, a spiced fruit porridge, purple in colour from the Andean blackberry and purple maize, is usually eaten with “guagua de pan”, a bread shaped like a swaddled baby or a pig.
The commemorations in the cemeteries are in the spirit of “eat, drink and be merry”. If the deceased was a smoker, relatives who smoke would blow smoke down over his or her grave and some of their favourite tipple in life would be poured into the grave as well.
To us in this part of the world such practices might seem disrespectful but they are clearly aimed at showing that the dead are still very much with the living and that, even though they are gone, they are remembered with love and celebrated in a way that they themselves liked to celebrate when alive – a reiteration of St Paul’s assertion in his Epistle to the Romans that death shall have no dominion.