What’s up with the Day of the Dead?

Halloween is known to everyone. Most people associate the scary festival on October 31 with hollowed-out pumpkins, scary costumes and children parading around the houses. The fact that there are other customs related to the popular autumn holiday in addition to the American expression is becoming less and less important.

In Mexico, for example, people celebrate Día de Muertos (also Día de los Muertos), the Day of the Dead. Even if there are parallels to Halloween, the Totenfest deviates from the horror spectacle in many ways.

When is Dia de Muertos?

The Day of the Dead begins on the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, and ends on All Souls’ Day, November 2 each year. On the one hand, the feast of the dead is closely linked to the Christian faith, but on the other hand it also mixes it with pre-Christian traditions.

Origin and formation of the Día de Muertos

Even in Aztec times, people believed in a never-ending connection between life and death. In order to enable the returning spirits from the afterlife to meet people in this world again, they celebrated a happy festival once a year at the end of the harvest season.

The Spanish conquest of Central America in the 16th century led to the fall of the Aztec Empire. In their quest to Christianize the population, the Spanish conquerors suppressed the indigenous culture of the people. This also applies to the festival of the dead, which was to be replaced by the Christian festival and commemoration days of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. The pre-Christian belief in life after death combined well with the Christian concept of death and allowed the tradition to continue even after the colonists conquered.

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What do Mexicans celebrate on the Day of the Dead?

The focus of the Día de Muertos is the commemoration of the deceased. According to popular belief, on the Day of the Dead the souls of the deceased return to their families. And that is celebrated in style. People honor their dead relatives with festivals, food, alcohol, music and dancing – the more exuberant the celebrations, the more popular the deceased is said to have been during their lifetime.

On November 1st there are big festival parades in many places, where people dress up as skeletons and parade through the streets singing and dancing. The figure of the skeleton lady La Catrina has become a classic symbol for Día de Muertos.

customs for the feast of the dead

Even if the Day of the Dead brings an at first sight unpleasant topic to people’s attention, it is not a sad matter. On the contrary, the colorful folk festival honors death. As one of the most important holidays in Mexico, the family festival makes people aware of the transience of life at an early age. For this reason, death is omnipresent on Día de Muertos.

A central custom is the construction of the ofrendas, richly decorated altars with photos of the deceased. At the altars, visitors from the afterlife will find all sorts of gifts intended to make their return to the world of the living as pleasant as possible.

A decorated mortuary altar in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Pan de Muerto, the bread of the dead, is sold in bakeries. This is a sweet yeast pastry that is part of Día de Muertos like cookies are for Christmas. Sweets and pulque, the national alcoholic drink of Mexico, are also part of the culinary customs on Día de Muertos.

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On Día de Muertos, houses and streets are decorated with skeleton figures made of papier-máche, skulls made of glittering icing or marzipan, as well as colorful flowers and candles.

Decorated skulls, so-called Calaveras de Dulce, bear the names of deceased friends and family members.

Decorated skulls, so-called Calaveras de Dulce, bear the names of deceased friends and family members.

The preparations for the festival of the dead usually begin in mid-October. Above all, the roads to the cemeteries are decorated to mark the way back to the realm of the dead for the ancestors.

To show the deceased the way back to the realm of the dead, the paths to the cemeteries are decorated.

To show the deceased the way back to the realm of the dead, the paths to the cemeteries are decorated.

On November 2nd, the families meet in the cemeteries in the evening to bring gifts to the dead and to celebrate the end of the festival together with them. Until we meet again next year.

On November 2nd, Día de Muertos ends in celebration at the cemetery.

On November 2nd, Día de Muertos ends in celebration at the cemetery.

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