5 Things to Know About Día de los Muertos

Words by Florence Robson

The Mexican festival Día de Muertos will be celebrated this weekend and we’re marking the occasion with a party in our Speakeasy! To get yourself in the mood, here are five things to know about this vital cultural event.

  1. It’s not a Mexican version of Halloween Although Día de Muertos almost overlaps with Western Halloween festivities, it’s by no means the same celebration. Día de Muertos takes place over two days – All Saints Day and All Souls Day in Christianity – on the 1st and 2nd November each year. The celebration originated with the Aztec, Toltec and other Nahua people, who saw death as a natural phase of the circle of life and so considered mourning disrespectful. During Día de Muertos, the dead temporarily return to earth as welcome guests. The festival is often associated with the agricultural cycles and the sense of connectedness between everything in the natural world.
  2. It’s a celebration of love Despite its morbid name, Día de Muertos is a celebration of life – an opportunity to remember and celebrate the lives of departed loved ones with music, dancing and feasts. Popular traditional dances include La Danza de los Viejitos—the dance of the little old men—in which boys and young men dress as old men, walk around crouched over then suddenly jump up in an energetic dance. Another dance is La Danza de los Tecuanes—the dance of the jaguars—that depicts farm workers hunting a jaguar.
  3. Altars and offerings are key For Día de Muertos, altars or ofrendas are loaded with offerings; water and food to refresh the dead after their long journey, family photos and a candle for each dead relative. Sugar skulls and toys are left for children who have passed. Marigolds are used to decorate the altar and scattered at gravesites, chosen because of their bright colour and strong scent to guide wandering souls back to their resting place. Each ofrenda features a representation of the four elements: water, earth, fire and air. Earth is represented by bread while traditional paper banners represent the wind.
  4. The celebration’s key symbol has a literary background Calavera means skull but in the 18th century it was also the term for a short, humorous poem, often poking fun at the living. Eventually these poems became a key part of Día de Muertos celebrations. The image of the female skeleton associated with the festival originated in 1947, when artist Diego Rivera featured a stylised skeleton designed by Mexican political litographist José Gaudalupe Posada, in his masterpiece mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Rivera made the skeleton female, dressing her in a large hat and naming her Catrina, slang for “the rich.” Today, the calavera Catrina, or elegant skull, is the Day of the Dead’s most ubiquitous symbol and the inspiration for many costumes!
  5. It’s recognised by UNESCO In 2008, Día de Muertos was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, established with the aim of ensuring better protection of important intangible cultural heritages worldwide and the awareness of their significance. The celebration was recognised for its great significance in the life of Mexico’s indigenous communities. According to UNESCO, “the fusion of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Catholic feasts brings together two universes, one marked by indigenous belief systems, the other by worldviews introduced by the Europeans in the sixteenth century.”

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