The Day of the Dead or « Día de los Muertos » is a Mexican festival 🇲🇽 .unique in its kind. It is celebrated as a celebratory occasion where the living commemorate their deceased with dance, music and a festive meal. What makes this celebration so special is its mixed origins, inspired by both pre-Columbian culture and the Christian culture that came with the Spanish colonizers.
1) Multiple origins of the Day of the Dead
A. Pre-Columbian origins: traditional Native American rites
THE DEATH CULT IN CENTRAL AMERICA
The origin of the Day of the Dead in Mexico lies in the death cult practiced by the indigenous peoples of Central and Latin American countries over 3000 years ago. Since the numerous pre-Columbian civilizations fought a lot of wars, the skulls of the vanquished were kept as a trophy 💀 During religious ceremonies, human skulls symbolized life and death. Therefore, they are often represented in the paintings and engravings of this civilization.
LIFE AFTER DEATH ACCORDING TO THE AZTECS
The Aztecs considered life and death to be two sides of the same coin…so they weren’t afraid of death! One finds the same ease in dealing with death among the Mexicans . The Aztecs did not speak of a hell or a paradise according to whether the living had done good or bad deeds. Rather, they believed that after death one goes to a different place depending on the circumstances of death. In a natural death, the deceased must embark on a long, four-year journey to Mictlan (the underworld) to find Mictecacihuatl (the goddess of death). She is often represented by a skull, and her worship has inspired many Day of the Dead traditions.
RITUALS AND OFFERINGS FOR THE DEAD
In Aztec culture, death is the beginning of a new life . So the offerings should serve to help the deceased in his new life and to meet his needs. These offerings were made at celebrations around the summer with dancing and singing 💃 The Aztecs celebrated two feasts of the dead: a feast for children and a feast for adults. This dichotomy is reflected in Mexican celebrations:
- November 1st : The first day is called « Nuestros Angelitos » (our little angels in Spanish) and symbolizes the return of the spirits of the deceased children .
- November 2nd : The next day, the deceased adults, slower to make this journey between the worlds.
B. Christian origins (Spanish missionaries)
CHRISTIAN DEATH RITUALS
However, the Day of the Dead is not simply an evolution of the cult of the dead practiced by the Aztec people. However, the Day of the Dead is not simply an evolution of the cult of the dead practiced by the Aztec people. This celebration is the result of a merging of traditions with the introduction of Christian culture by the Spanish settlers. In the 19th century, settlers from Spain conquered Latin America and made it their mission to convert the locals to Christianity. Christian religion ✝️ Faced with opposition from the local population, the monks drew on local beliefs and rituals to establish a connection with Christian rites. The Mexican Feast of the Dead was therefore gradually moved from July to November 1st and 2nd to coincide with the Christian Feast of All Saints.
THE EUROPEAN FOLKLORE OF THE FEAST OF THE DEAD
In the Christian tradition, November 1st is the feast of All Saints’ Day, celebrating all the saints of the Church. November 2nd is the day of remembrance of the deceased. On this day, families go to the cemeteries to tend the graves and lay flowers in memory of the deceased. In the European folklore of the Middle Ages, one finds the motif of the » danse macabre » present in engravings and paintings. These motifs of dancing skeletons, brought by the Spanish missionaries, may have inspired the Mexican depictions of skeletons and skulls.
MAKE TWO CELEBRATIONS INTO ONE
« El Día de los Muertos » was revived in Mexico in the 1920s in an attempt to revitalize Mexican culture in a nationalist endeavour. In this very religious country, traditional folklore was revived with colorful costumes and sugar skulls , the famous « calaveras « . These sugar skulls are used as offerings on the altars for the deceased, as gifts for friends. but also used as motifs for numerous decorations and accessories.
At World of Skulls we offer numerous accessories to pay tribute to this tradition straight from Mexico. One of the most popular is this beautiful silver « »Mexican skull ring ! » » 🤩
2) Expiry of the Day of the Dead
A. Day of the Dead in practice
DECORATION OF CITIES AND HOUSES
The pre-Columbian and Christian origins of the Day of the Dead explain the sequence of these special days. It usually takes place on November 1st and 2nd. However, depending on the city and region, the celebrations can last up to several weeks! And already in early October, cities begin to prepare for the celebrations with banners and decorations depicting colorful skulls. In shop windows or in houses you can find illustrations related to the « Day of the Dead » theme, such as: B. this beautiful « »painting of Mexican skulls » » !
VISIT THE CEMETERY WITH THE FAMILY
On the Day of the Dead, families gather together to visit the graves of their loved ones. This event is believed to be when the spirits of the deceased return to earth to visit their families. It is common for families to have a picnic on colorful tablecloths in the cemetery. In the house, on the street or over the graves, the family erects an altar on which they make traditional offerings. These offerings include fruit, sugar skulls (with the deceased’s name on the forehead), fragrant flowers, tequila and sweets 🍬 There will also be holy water, candles and the bread of the dead inspired by the missionaries’ Eucharist. The altars are decorated with many colors (orange and red petals). Each family tries to build a more magnificent altar than the neighbor and bring joy to the deceased.
GLORIOUS FESTIVITIES AND PARADES
Traditional dances and music are an integral part of the celebrations. For this occasion, the women make up their faces into skeletons and wear colorful dresses. The grand parade in Mexico City gathers more than a million spectators who come to admire floats, dancers and puppeteers. The parade is a more recent addition to the Festival of the Dead. Since 2016, it has attracted a multitude of visitors eager for this alienating and surreal spectacle. Mexicans celebrate their dead with joy and hospitality.
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B. Essential symbols on the Day of the Dead
THE CALAVERAS OR SUGAR SKULLS
When one thinks of the Day of the Dead, it is impossible not to think of the sugar skulls , called the « calaveras de azucar » in Spanish. They are found everywhere in Mexico and come in edible and non-edible forms. First made from clay in the 19th century, they were later made from sugar using a paste made from eggs, powdered sugar and lemon. Today, these miniature skulls are made in traditional or industrial ways and can be decorated with glitter. Be careful not to try to eat them 🤢 The edible sculptures are decorated with a colorful glaze or made of chocolate.
MEXICAN AUTUMN FLOWERS
Flowers are often used as a motif to decorate Mexican skulls. The most commonly depicted flower is the Cempoalxúchitl, or » Mexico’s Sorrows . » This flower is abundant in Mexico in October and livens up the festival with its yellow and orange petals. They are credited with the virtue of being able to guide the deceased. That is why the Mexicans make paths on the ground with the petals to lead the deceased to the altar erected in their honor. In addition to the traditional flower, all kinds of flowers can decorate the altar 💐 Depending on the color of the flower, they have a specific symbolism: orange represents Aztec mourning, purple represents Christian mourning, and white represents heaven.
3) The Feast of the Dead at the international level
A. Popular Culture: Clothing, accessories and tattoos
The bustle and aesthetic of the Day of the Dead has influenced many artists internationally and has done much to promote Mexican culture . The Mexican skull symbol is worn as a mark of distinction (as an accessory or on a piece of clothing) by those who oppose the established order and stand by its differences. The colorful skull is a provocation turning a nose at death. It has become a popular design among old school tattoo artists .
Related: If you don’t feel ready for a permanent tattoo, how about a « »temporary Mexican skull tattoo » » ? 🤔
B. Mixing of cultures: Latin America vs. North America
Under the influence of cultural mixing, the rites of celebration of the dead continue to evolve. Although the Day of the Dead is unrelated to Halloween in its origin and symbolism, the juxtaposition of the dates results in a merging of the two. It is now not uncommon to see pumpkins and children dressed up in Mexico 🎃 Likewise, disguises and decorations with sugar skulls are becoming increasingly popular during the Halloween festival in Europe and the US.
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