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The Day of the Dead


The Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos in Spanish) is a popular Mexican multi-day celebration. While it was mainly celebrated by people from the south and central regions of Mexico and people of Mexican origin living in other countries, the celebrations are slowly but steadily spreading across the world. During the celebration that occurs between 31st October and 2nd November, friends, and family gather together to appreciate, remember and pray for the departed friends and family members and support them in their post humus spiritual lives (“The Day of the Dead” 361). Although it is a celebration for the dead, it is not a sad holiday but a celebration where participants merry sharing food and visiting cemeteries with pleasantries for the dead. The celebration is based on the cultural premise that the dead are alive in the spiritual world and keep visiting the living. It is a tradition that has been passed through generations of Mexico and was in 2008 recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. This paper explores the celebration of “the Day of the Dead.” It begins by exploring the history and general background of the celebration and proceeds to analyzing the costumes, fashion elements, and foods associated with the day of the day. Further, the paper compares the day of the dead celebrations with the Halloween celebrations and culminates in a summary of all the overarching points.

History and Background

The day of the dead celebrations has a rich history. It can be traced to over 2500 years during the Aztec civilization. During the Aztec era, the indigenous Mexicans took a whole month early in the summer (approximately the month of August) to celebrate in honor of the dead and their goddess Mictecacihuatl who was also known as “the Lady of the Dead”. In the Aztec civilization, Mictecacihuatl was the Mictlan (underworld) queen presided over the ancient carnivals of the departed and secured the dead people’s bones while ruling the underworld with her husband (“The Day of the Dead” 361). These celebrations were so central to the Mexican culture and tradition that when the Spaniard missionary Catholics came to spread the Christian gospel in the 1600s, they had to innovate ways to introduce it into their worship system. In a bid to stimulate compliance, the Christian missionaries amalgamated the celebrations with the Catholic’s All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ day, moving the celebrations to 1st and 2nd November to match all souls’ and All Saints ’ Day (Andrade 4).
In order to maintain the authenticity of the day of the dead and gain wider acceptance, the missionaries retained most of the traditional iconography, one of which is the skull that still remains the core symbol of the day of the dead (Skulls to the living 7). It is this amalgamation of Mexican culture and the Catholicism that resulted in the present day “Day of the Dead” celebrations. By the late 20th Century, the celebrations in 1st November (celebrating dead babies or infants) and 2nd November (celebrating dead adults) were widespread within Mexico and were spreading across regions that harbored individuals with Mexican ancestry. Today, the celebration of the day of the dead has spread to the Americas, Europe, and the Caribbean.

Key Aspects of the Celebrations

The celebration of the day of the dead is based on the premise that the dead are living in a different world and visit the living once a year, to be with the family. During the visit, the dead listen to the prayers of the living and where possible offer apt answers (Andrade 28). As a result, during the celebrations, family and friends gather together either in church, at home or at the cemeteries where they build ofrendas (altars) to offer sacrifices for the departed souls (Skulls to the living 41). The ofrendas are decorated with a wide variety of offerings including the orange marigold (flor de muerto) whose essence is believed to attract the dead people’s souls to the laid offerings.
Friends and family may also offer playthings to the dead children (los angelitos) and beverages to the grownup dead in an appealing bid. In addition, the ofrendas are decorated by the memorabilia of the diseased including their favorite clothing, foods, and other things. In-home ofrendas, the spirits of the dead are offered beverages, special pumpkins and sugar skulls (Andrade 28). These ofrendas are seen welcome signs for the spirits and are normally left outside with bedding for the comfort of the arriving visiting spirits of the dead. The Mexican culture holds that the souls of the dead feast on the vital “spiritual essence” of the food, thus, no nutritional significance is accorded the foods offered to the dead on the ofrendas. Since the current Day of the Dead celebration is a merger of the indigenous pagan traditions with Christianity, it is common to find some celebrate it by building tiny shrines bequeathed with Christian paraphernalia such as the picture of the Virgin Mary, the cross, in addition to pictures of the diseased and the ofrendas. In these and the other cases, the friends and family would offer prayers for the dead and share vital memories that are sometimes amusing and interesting.
To the Mexicans and those that celebrate the Day of the Dead, the visit by the dead is a great thing that comes with blessings if the spirits of the dead are aptly welcomed to dine, wine, and dwell with the family. It is thus vital to them that everything is done to ensure that the spirits not only visit but are appeased in their visit.

Art, Music and Poetry

The Day of the dead is a real manifestation of diversified and complex folkloric traditions – the sculptures, poetry, masks, paintings and song. The art paints a culture and people that have consistently overcome the oppression imposed upon it by Christianity and other changes in the world to maintain a distinctly creative and peculiar life and death philosophy. According to research, the dead art is seasonal, ephemeral, secular and humorous. Moreover, the day of the dead art is comically designed for the living friends and family and meant to be light, small and transportable (Marchi 152). Since the creation of a Calvera called the Catrina by Posada in the early 20th century, fleshless skeletons dressed like living humans have grown to be an inseparable art of the day of the dead (Andrade 28). The celebrations tend to mock death by creating sugar skulls that have human names on them. The satire, and humor that laden these art further presents the mockery that the celebration offers to death without provoking the spirits. Poetic epitaphs have equally been considered vital Calaveras of the day of the dead. The literary Calaveras are kept short, rhymed and addressed to particular victim whose name normally titles the poem. This was, the celebration improves friendships and widen ties.
Food is essentially important because it forms the core of the process of offering sacrifices to the spirits of the dead. The foods are used to decorate and create the ofrenda. The implication of using food as part of the altar is that the people believed that the spirits do not physically consume the foods but enjoy the ephemeral essence (aroma and flavor) of these foods. Liquor was also used for home ofrendas while bread was offered both at the home altars and graveside ofrendas. In other cases sweets and sugars (panellets dels morts) were offered to the spirits during the celebrations (Andrade 171). All foods offered would be eaten by the family after the offering although they were generally believed to be nutritionally useless.
Fashion is a critical facet of the day of the dead. Traditionally, the day of the dead may include song and dance. During the song and dance, most people put on clothes that are meticulously decorated with particular types of shells that make noise during dancing. The noises made by these shells are believed to work to invite the spirits to join the celebrations. The sugar skull remains a very core referencing point for the day of the dead fashion (Rowlatt par. 6). Many have recently adopted skull-like makeup and catrina dressing styles to embody the spirit of the celebration. Nevertheless, unlike food, fashion is not such a central facet of the day of the dead in Mexico.
Comparison of the Day of the Dead with Halloween
While it is significantly different from the Halloween, the day of the dead shared many similarities with Halloween. Both the two celebrations coincide in time and use death imagery in their celebrations. It is not surprising that although the two celebrations originated from pagan origins with Halloween originating from the Celtic tradition while the day of the dead from the Aztec tradition, they ended up being celebrated around the all saints’ day. This only shows the fact that Catholicism affected the celebration of both festivities in a manner that changed their original pagan aspects (Santino 49). The celebrations are also centered on skeletons, costumes and mythologies around what happens after death.
The day of the dead and Halloween differ in many fronts. Firstly, while the day of the dead celebrates the dead and their lives, Halloween mocks the dead. The day of the shows the spirit of the dead as loving spirits that missing their living family members and often come back to visit blessings and good tidings (“The Day of the Dead” 370). Halloween depict the dead as blood sucking evil beings whose main agenda is to create havoc and thus must be avoided at all costs. Moreover, the day of the dead uses the skull as its core symbol with sugar skulls and skull paintings prominently featuring in the celebrations (“The Day of the Dead” 370). On the contrary, the symbols of Halloween are the pumpkin, vampires, mummies and ghosts.
The way of celebration of the two days is also very different. The day of the dead entails the creation of altars that are decked with sacrifices and memorabilia of the dead to remember them in positive light. They are gifted, songs and poetry share and the spirits invited to dine with the people. It also involves going to the grave yards and praying, in addition to eating and marrying. In so doing, the living friends and family honor the dead and possibly help the dead in their living in the underworld (“The Day of the Dead” 371). However, Halloween is a celebration that entails pumpkin carving, haunted homes visiting, wearing gore costumes, trick and treating and bobbling for apples. It marks the day before the day of the saints when the bad spirits have the privilege to hover around the world.

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