Though everyone loves the end-of-October orange and black tradition, it is not to be confused with its’ neighbour of a completely different meaning. Day of the Dead or in its correct term, Dia de los Muertos is often pegged as the “Mexican Version” of Halloween because of its close dates and the fact that skulls are heavily used in the decorum. Unfortunately, other than that the two holidays have nothing to do with each other.
For starters, Dia de los Muertos takes place from November 1st to November 2nd, both days pertaining to a different meaning. November 1st is modeled after the pre-Hispanic religious rite called All Saint’s Day and November 2nd after All Soul’s Day. These two days show up on the Catholic calendar and have been molded into new holidays dubbed Dia de Los Inocentes (November 1) and Dia de los Muertos (November 2). Dia de los Inocentes is for any baby or child who has passed away as their souls were “innocent.” In fact, it is believed that children would run faster than their adult counterparts hence why they would arrive on Earth a day earlier.
The two day celebration honours the dead and welcomes them back onto Earth through ofrendas and spiritual belief. An ofrenda derived from the Spanish word ofrecer has the look of a shrine or religious pedestal but is actually an altar where food, toys and any other memorabilia is placed as an offering for the souls that plan to return to Earth. Candles are placed in front of each photo of the returning souls and marigolds are placed as the main decorative flower. Oftentimes, in small towns, marigold petals are sprinkled from the relatives’ graves all the way to their ofrenda as a way to guide the souls home.
Aside from ofrendas, the cities, towns and houses of those celebrating are dressed with papel picado. The direct translation is “pierced paper” and needless to say it appears to be this way. With a similar look to the snowflake cutouts we all made in 4th grade, papel picado is made by layering coloured tissue and puncturing the paper with a chisel and hammer. These are seen draped anywhere along the edges of tables and altars but also hang in the streets across Mexico.
As for the most iconic symbol of Dia de los Muertos, that goes to none other than the calaveras or “skulls”. It isn’t Dia de los Muertos without the small skulls poised in every possible spot and small skull shaped candies being made as a tasty treat. Not only are rooms and cities decorated but the Mexican people also take on Dia de los Muertos festivities in the form of costume. Men will be seen dressed in traditional Mexican suits and women in colourful dresses while donning skeletal face paint as a mimic of the calavera, Catrina.
According to the National Geographic, a Mexican political cartoonist by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada etched a satirical image of a female skeleton with a large hat as social commentary on the Mexican peoples’ imitation of European refinement in the early 20th century. A few decades later, muralist Diego Rivera took this female skeleton and incorporated it in his work, naming her “Catrina”, a slang word for rich. Today, Catrina is the world-renowned symbol of Dia de Los Muertos.
It can’t be a celebration without food and drinks now can it? Dia de los Muertos has people drinking atole, a warm thin porridge made of corn flour and garnished with cinnamon or cane sugar. Atole is wonderfully paired with pan de muertos, directly translated as bread of the dead. Pan is a traditional sweet bread that often features bones and skulls as decoration. The food placed at the ofrendas can be left for the souls to eat or in some cases is eaten by the family members as a form of sharing food that is loved.
Not only is the comparison to American Halloween shrewdly incorrect but it’s a disregard of the importance and independence of Dia de los Muertos as a cultural celebration. Halloween is a day to be scary and fearful of death whereas Dia de los Muertos is quite the opposite. Originating from the Aztec, Nahua and Toltec people who believed that mourning the dead was disrespectful, November 1st and 2nd are for a celebration of death as a natural stage of life’s continuum.
After UNESCO recognized Dia de los Muertos as a global holiday, it has become more popular than ever before. The festival is celebrated around the world by Mexican communities, some of which are featured in Toronto annually. Yes, Dia de los Muertos originated in Mexico but who’s to say it can’t be celebrated worldwide? After all, todos somos calaveras…