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The influence of Day of the Dead has spread beyond its origins in Mexico – here’s how to mark it with respect for the ancient traditions
A woman dressed as a catrina participates during the parade of the “Day Of The Dead Festival” in Guanajuato, Mexico (Getty Images)
Rooted deep in the heart of Mexican culture and enjoyed throughout the world, Día de los Muertos, which translates to ‘Day of the Dead’ in English, celebrates the joyous reunion between the living and the souls of the deceased.
On Day of the Dead 2022, Esteban Touma, teacher and content producer at Babbel Live, explains what Día de los Muertos actually signifies, how it differs from Halloween, and shares insight into honouring this sacred celebration.
Día de los Muertos is ultimately a celebration of life, both for the living and for loved ones who have passed. The holiday serves as a reminder that life and death are complementary and can joyously coexist, as friends and family gather to remember their loved ones who have passed, reminisce over fond memories, and even make peace with the inevitability of death.
This Mexican holiday is over one thousand years old, and stems from the ancient Aztecs. Similar celebrations are observed annually all over Latin America, typically on November 1st and 2nd (though celebration dates may fluctuate by region).
Because Día de los Muertos is such an ancient holiday, its traditions and rituals can be traced back to the pre-Hispanic people of Mexico, who savoured the celebrations by drawing them out for an entire month. Ancient festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, also referred to as ‘Lady of the Dead’, who has inspired many symbols that are still prominent today.
One of these prolific symbols are skulls and bones, which were used by early Aztecs’ during Día de los Muertos to honour Mictecacihuatl and those who have passed. Today, Mexican people don skull face paint, masks, and costumes in honour of this long-standing tradition, and the belief that death brought new life and that was part of life’s cyclical journey.
Día de los Muertos is celebrated by Latinx people all over the world, however the largest celebrations tend to be in Mexico, other areas of Latin America, and the United States. While the 1st and 2nd November are the true dates of this holiday, parades, celebrations, and parties often begin in early October, hence why many people will confuse this holiday as being the Mexican equivalent of Halloween, but, while the celebrations may have common roots in All Saints’ Day, they have very different meaning.
Today, Día de los Muertos utilises many long-standing traditions throughout celebrations, from honouring the deceased with marigold flowers – ‘cempazúchitl’ – to using ‘calaveras’, edible or decorative skulls made from either sugar or clay. Many will build ‘ofrendas’, which are home altars, and visit graves to bring gifts to the dead as an incentive to reunite with their loved ones who are still living.
In urban areas, people take to the street for festive celebrations, with some wearing wooden skull masks known as ‘calacas’. Often, toys and food, including bread and candy in the shape of skulls and skeletons are created as a symbolic gesture to the holiday’s origins.
It is also worth noting that within Mexican culture, the skeletal symbol of death is not viewed as scary, as evidenced by the iconic La Calavera Catrina (‘the skull Catrina’). The entirety of the celebration shows a closeness with one’s deceased relatives on a level that does not exist across many other cultures.
Día de los Muertos is deeply rooted in tradition, family, and embracing the cyclical nature of life. The symbols, clothing, and makeup embraced throughout Día de los Muertos enable these cultural traditions to live on, while allowing new generations to forge their own path throughout the festivities.
Treating the symbols and clothing worn during Día de los Muertos as a costume is a form of cultural appropriation. However, should you be interested in learning about Latinx culture, many local Latinx groups throw celebrations where you can appropriately show your appreciation for Latinx culture.
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