If you’re planning a visit to Mexico, you may want to consider coinciding it with the Day of the Dead celebrations, which take place all over Mexico, but particularly in the central and southern regions, between October 31st and November 2nd.
So, what is this fascinating festival? Well, although it takes place at the same time as Halloween and is certainly associated with it, the origins of the Mexican festival predate the arrival of European Christians on the American continent by thousands of years. To truly understand the Day of the Dead and, crucially, why and how it differs from Halloween, you have to understand that the beliefs of the ancient peoples of Mexico differed from modern ideas in several respects.
In pre-Hispanic Mexico, death was seen as another phase on the continuum of life, rather than the end of life itself. As a result, these ancient cultures chose not to mourn the dead, but instead to treat them as still-present members of their community. The Dia de Muertos was an important and, it should be understood, a happy festival, because it was believed to be a day when the spirits of the departed temporarily returned to their old homes, to celebrate with their families. The tradition of feasting on this day was intended as much for the benefit of the returning spirits, who would need food and drink after their journey back to the living world, as for the still-living celebrants.
The date of the festival is not a coincidence – it was moved from its original, early summer date to coincide with the Christian festivals of All Hallows Eve (Halloween, October 31st), All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (a commemoration of all departed Christians on November 2nd) after the Spanish colonisation in the sixteenth century. Whilst the festival was Christianised, the Mexican people were allowed to keep aspects of their old practices, and so the Day of the Dead remains a noticeably joyous event to this day and many of the colourful traditions we associate with it can still be traced to those ancient beliefs.
Whilst it is perfectly acceptable to visit Mexico at this time and enjoy the celebrations, it is important to understand that, underneath the colour and noise and fun lies a proud cultural tradition that deserves respect. Although the celebration itself is joyful, this is a time for Mexican families to be with their departed loved ones, carrying out such traditions as cleaning the graves. If you approach the festival in this spirit, you will be welcomed with open arms.
Altars, or ‘ofrenda’ are an important part of the celebration and you will see them in cemeteries and in homes. These aren’t altars in the Christian sense. Instead, they are for the presentation of gifts to the returning spirits: food, drink, photographs and sometimes, poignantly, toys for a dead child. You will also see marigold petals. Look closely and you will see that they are scattered in a path from the altar to the grave – they are there to guide the returning spirits to their resting places.
There are many other traditions associated with the Day of the Dead – too many to discuss here. Some are ancient whilst others, such as the practice of dressing as the ‘calavera Catrina’, the elegant skull, are surprisingly modern, inspired by Mexico’s great literary and artistic traditions of the early twentieth century. All are complex and intriguing, as befits the vibrant and often turbulent country that is Mexico.