It may be called ‘Day of the Day’, but the Mexican festival of Día de los Muertos is all about celebrating life
Sugar skulls – those colourful, elaborate representation of the human skull – are synonymous with the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. But most of us have no clue as to the origin of this revered event and its significance.
Though it may sound similar or often mistaken as “the Mexican version of Halloween” – with death being the shared theme and is celebrated around the same time each year – these two couldn’t be more different. While Halloween is dark and macabre in nature, Día de los Muertos respectfully celebrates those who have passed away and the gift of life itself through a revelry of positivity and colour, hence the fancy make-ups and costumes, as well as joyful parades and parties filled with dance and songs.
Día de los Muertos: What & Why
Celebrated by the people of Mexican heritage, Día de los Muertos is a unique holiday that celebrates life and death, reuniting the living and the dead. Steeped in rituals, it is a manifestation of the truly exceptional bond that Mexicans have with death and with their ancestors. Families would put together offerings, or ‘ofrendas’, to honour family members that have passed on. Ofrendas comprise an altar decorated with marigold flowers, pictures of the departed, their favourite food and drinks – complemented with prayers. The combination of these elements is believed to entice the departed souls to visit from the land of the dead and partake in the celebrations.
The origin of Día de los Muertos goes back a few millennia; the ancient Aztec tradition of celebrating the deaths of ancestors has been observed for as long as 2,500 to 3,000 years. It used to be celebrated for an entire ninth month of the Aztec calendar, dedicated to the goddess Mictēcacihuātl, or ‘Lady of the Dead’, who ruled the underworld along with her husband Mictlāntēcutli. Pre-Hispanic cultures considered death as a natural phase in the journey of life, hence the memories of the departed are kept alive, and during Día de los Muertos, the spirits are believed to temporarily return to earth and be amongst the living.
Omnipresent during Día de los Muertos, ‘calaveras’ or sugar skulls are part of the ofrenda, made in the image of Mictlāntēcutli, the Aztec god of death, who’s believed to assure a safe passage into the underworld.
These sugar skulls, made of sugar, water and lemon juice, are always extremely colourful and “laughing” as they are meant to represent and celebrate the lives led by those who are now gone and the impact they’ve had on your own existence, instead of mourning their demise in a dark, depressing way.
Calaveras can take many shapes and sizes including candies, figurines and decorations, with the most famous and identifiable being face paintings!
Built in private homes and cemeteries, the ofrenda (offering) – consisting of a collection of items such as photographs and personal belongings or memorabilia of the departed – is placed on an altar. Orange Mexican marigolds, referred to as ‘Flower of the Dead’, adorn brightly coloured altars as well as gravesites, and copal incense would be lit, meant to help convey prayers and purify the area around the altar.
Along with favourite foods and drinks of the departed, ofrendas would include pan de muerto (‘Bread of the Dead’), a type of sweet roll shaped like a bun topped with sugar as well as sugar skulls. Atole, a traditional Mexican beverage made from masa harina (which is the same corn flour used to make tortillas), complement the offerings.
La Calavera Catrina
In early 20th century, controversial Mexican cartoonist and printmaker José Guadalupe Posada came up with a satirical portrait, Calavera Garbancera – a skeleton with a fancy feathered hat – a representation of those Mexican natives who aspired to look wealthy and aristocratic just like the Europeans in the pre-revolution era. The drawing was to remind Mexicans to be proud of who they are and to stop trying to be something they’re not.
Later in 1947, Diego Rivera (the husband of iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo) included Posada’s stylised skeleton, which he named La Catrina (Catrina is slang for “the rich”), in one of his murals entitled ‘Dreams of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park’, illustrating 400 years of Mexican history (which now can be viewed at the Diego Rivera Mural Museum in Mexico City).
Today, La Calavera Catrina is a symbol of Day of the Dead activities which includes painted faces, colourful make-ups and costumes.
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