Día de Muertos (The Day of the Dead)
November is here, and with it comes the respectful and vibrant Mexican holiday of Dia de Muertos (The Day of the Dead)! This holiday is bright, colourful and spiritual, and important to Mexican culture. With iconic images such as sugar skulls, Monarch butterflies and colourful skeletons, this popular festival is often celebrated or appropriated without proper knowledge of its significance and meaning. We’ve gathered all the information you need to not only learn about the spiritual holiday, but to also celebrate it respectfully, in your own colourful way.
The Meaning and History of the Day of the Dead Festival
The Day of the Dead festival is a Mexican holiday to remember, honour and celebrate ancestors and family who have died. While somber, this holiday is paradoxically also a joyous, festive time filled with vivid colours, spectacular decorations, vibrant costumes, bright flowers and sumptuous food.
It is believed that the gates to heaven open at midnight on October 31st and the souls of the departed return to their families, with the souls of the children arriving on November 1st and the souls of the adults arriving on November 2nd. In preparation for the arrival of the spirits, families visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried to clean and decorate the tombs. The altars are decorated with candles, photos of the deceased, incense, religious imagery and flowers. Families also prepare food and drink, listen to music and share tales about those who have passed on.
Many of the decorations used in the Day of the Dead festival symbolise the four elements of nature: earth, water, fire and wind. Earth is represented by food, water by the drinks left for the deceased, fire by the candles burning on the altars and wind by paper decorations.
An important part of the festival is floral displays. Towns become seas of colour approaching the Day of the Dead festival as people decorate their homes, shops and cemeteries with bright flowers. The Mexican marigold, called cempasúchil (flower of the dead), is a beautiful orange flower with a distinctive aroma that is thought to be a favourite of the spirits and is used to attract and guide them home. People scatter trails of marigold petals from the cemetery to their houses for the spirits to follow.
Along with flowers, tissue-paper flags strung across the streets are a prominent decoration featured in the festival. They feature intricate designs that consist of the main figure or image (think butterflies, flowers and skulls) against a window-pane-style background.
Food also plays an important role in the Day of the Dead festival. It is thought that spirits are nourished by the essence and aroma of food, so families often cook their departed loved ones’ favourite dishes to lure them home. Often, families make a special type of bread called pan de muertos (bread of the dead), which is a round, sweet bread loaf sprinkled with sugar or sesame seeds. It is decorated with dough that is shaped like bones and sometimes includes a tear- drop shape, which represents the Aztec goddess Chimalam’s tears for the living.
Water and sweet drinks are left out to quench the spirits’ thirst after their long journey, and alcoholic drinks are left for the spirits of the adults. Once the spirits are thought to have arrived, the family and friends share the food with them in a celebratory meal.
As you can see, while the Day of the Dead festival is about reflection and thinking about loved ones who are no longer with us, it is also a joyous occasion for families to come together and share in beautiful decorations and tasty food. While it is a festival reflecting on death, it is also celebrating life.
Preparing for the Festivities
While the festival is most commonly celebrated in Mexico (it is particularly important to central and southern Mexico), it is also celebrated in other parts of the world, particularly those with Mexican descendants. If you are lucky enough to be involved in the celebration, here are some suggestions and resources to help in the festivities.
Butterflies feature prominently in the decorations for the Day of the Dead festival, as the migration of the distinctive orange and black the monarch butterflies, from Canada back to Mexico, occurs around the same time as the festival. It involves tens of millions of butterflies that descend on Mexico in cloud-like flocks, and some people believe that the butterflies carry the spirits of departed loved ones. You can find a Day of the Dead inspired butterfly origami design, along with the iconic Sugar Skull design, in Hinkler’s Day of the Dead Origami book. By using colourful or floral designed paper, you can create bright, beautiful hanging decorations that are perfect for this festival.
Paper decorations are used during the festival to symbolise wind, which is one of the four elements of life, according to Aztec custom (the others being fire, earth and water). Skeletons are also a prominent feature of the festival, through decoration, food and traditions. Why not combine these and make a decorative paper skull mask? You can find inspiration for these in Hinkler’s Day of the Dead Masks to Colour book! The kit comes with elastic headbands so you can wear these colourful skeleton masks, or simply use them as decoration.
Create your own unique decorations for your Day of the Dead celebrations with Families also spend time decorating altars Hinkler’s Paint Your Own Day of the Dead Neon Rocks. This kit includes everything you need to paint some beautiful Day of the Dead themed designs on some lovely flat rocks. Why not try the beautiful and traditional Sugar Skull design? The artwork will really pop with the neon coloured paints!
Now that you know all about the spiritual and colourful Día de Muertos festival and have some suggestions to get you started, you can celebrate this beautiful festival in your own way!