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Sugar skulls and marigolds - traditional Day of the Dead offerings in Mexico
15 March, 20193 minute read

Mexico's Day of the Dead: One of the World's Most Spectacular Festivals

Although Halloween is celebrated by many in Mexico, it is El Día de los Muertos ('Day of the Dead'), just two days later, which unites the country in reflection.

Each year, Mexico celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed away. On 1 November we remember los angelitos, the souls of children, and on 2 November, All Soul’s Day, the spirits of adults. All Souls’ Day is a bank holiday, allowing families to gather in demonstration of love and respect. Together they clean the graves of those who have died and leave candles, sugar skulls, flowers and food. Some even sing, play cards and share stories of the departed.

Families also create a colourful altar in their homes, and decorate it with candles, photographs of the deceased, flowers, and sugar figurines sometimes inscribed with the names of the departed. They are not there for worship but to welcome spirits back to Earth. Many believe that the souls of the dead return to visit their families, so the deceased’s favourite food and drink (most notably tequila) are often placed at the altar for them to enjoy after their long journey back home. 

Paths are often marked by candles and marigolds. They are the symbolic flower of death, and are an important symbol of the festival. It is believed that their vibrant colour and scent guide the spirits to the altars.

The origins of Día de los Muertos date back thousands of years, to the Aztecs. They considered mourning as disrespectful and chose to accept the eventuality of death without fear. Mictecacihuatl was the Goddess of Death, who watched over the bones of the deceased and presided over ancient festivals of the dead. The month-long celebration to the ‘Lady of the Dead’ was adapted by the Roman Catholic Spanish settlers and evolved into the mix of pre-Hispanic and Christian celebrations of today.

Sugar art was introduced by Italian missionaries in the 17th century. Mexicans learned quickly from the friars and adapted the moulded characters used in Catholic festivals into the sugar skulls that are now synonymous with Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Their big smiles and colourful designs reflect old folk art, with the different colours and motifs representing the person they commemorate. Despite being edible, the skulls are normally only intended for decoration, but other foods are also available at this time. 

Bakeries are filled with ‘bread of the dead’, a sugar-dusted, orange-flavoured bread; and loaves shaped into people, laying at rest with their arms crossed. Markets and shops offer sweets and toys in the shapes of skulls and coffins.

Many communities celebrate El Día de los Muertos with their own traditions, which can include all-night vigils and sawdust rug competitions. But the key to the Day of the Dead is that people come together to celebrate. The most publicised festivity is the grand parade of skulls. Mexico City started their annual El Día de los Muertos parade in 2016. Their costumes are spectacular, but the skeletal makeup really captures the imagination. The hundreds of participants put on a spectacular show alongside huge floats and giant skeleton marionettes. The thousands of people who now attend it each year prove that the imported tradition of Halloween cannot wipe out this ancient celebration.

Experience Day of the Dead celebrations on a special departure of 'Mexico's Mayan Trail'.

Image of blog author Jenny Chaplin

Jenny’s passion for culture and wildlife has taken her across the world. Favourite experiences so far have included snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef, sailing on the Ganges in Varanasi, hiking through Norway and spending many hours on safari in Kenya and India spotting a menagerie of wonderful creatures.

Jenny | About the author

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