As people have migrated over the centuries, so too have their cultures and religions with them. This has led to similar festivals and observations occurring in different countries, albeit with distinct variations from place to place, reflecting the unique cultural makeup of its people. The Mexican events calendar is a classic example of this, projecting both the nation’s overwhelmingly Catholic faith, as well as its long and complex pre-Hispanic history. This exotic amalgamation of religious fervour and indigenous mysticism is at its most iconic and vividly Mexican on the annual celebration of El Día de los Muertos (‘Day of the Dead’).
Coinciding with the traditionally European and Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day at the beginning of November, El Día de los Muertos is a festival for families to pay respects to and rejoice in the memory of those that are no longer with them. Infants and children that have passed away are typically honoured on the 1st November, whilst the 2nd constitutes the principal feast day, and is a public holiday across Mexico. Whilst now integrated into the Christian calendar and rich with catholic symbolism in post-colonial Mexico, the essence of Day of the Dead is centred on the Aztec belief of the afterlife. People believed in a cycle of life and death, with the passing of a loved one a journey into the next life. A celebration to honour Mictecacihuatl, goddess of death and the underworld, revolved around the idea that those who had passed on to the next life could rejoin their families in spirit once a year, therefore giving cause for celebration and the foundation of El Día de los Muertos.
The festival is both a private and a public one. Within the home, people traditionally construct altars for the dead and adorn them with offerings of sugar skulls or calaveras, and pan de muerto (‘bread of the dead’) in the shape of bones and skeletons. Later, processions and exuberant music fill the streets, as people congregate in cemeteries to spruce up family graves and shower them in flowers and papel picado – the distinctly Mexican strings of brightly coloured paper cuttings. The normally quiet graveyards are injected with life, as people gather not to mourn but to cheerfully reminisce over happy times spent together, and maintain the inclusion of the dead within the community. Far from being a macabre spectacle, there is a feeling of respect but also pragmatism towards death. It is accepted as something inevitable, and therefore an opportunity to celebrate together with those that have passed is seen as something natural, and to be enjoyed.
El Día de los Muertos also exists in some form across much of Latin America, though the Mexican festival is the grandest and most significant. It has also gained a stronghold in the southern states of the USA, following immigrant communities across the border. To some extent it has also captured the world, perhaps due to its highly decorative and distinctive imagery, or maybe a slightly morbid fascination in celebrating something that remains taboo across western society. In today’s world where logical explanation is sought for everything, death remains one of the great unknowns. Therefore the manner in which it is honoured is a particularly revealing window on a culture and the beliefs, superstitions and character of its people.
For those Friendly Spanish students who are in our Advanced and Proficiency Spanish classes we will be discussing this fascinating event next week.
Your Friendly Spanish team