What Is the Day of the Dead?
El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), a Mexican celebration, is a day to celebrate, remember and prepare special foods in honor of those who have departed. On this day in Mexico, the streets near the cemeteries are filled with decorations of papel picado, flowers, candy calaveras (skeletons and skulls), and parades.
It is believed that the spirit of the dead visits their families on October 31 and leave on November 2. Mexico’s Day of the Dead is not a day to be scared – it is a festive occasion with parties, dancing, singing, and even fireworks! Markets and shops throughout Mexico sell toys and candy in the form of macabre symbols such as skeletons, coffins, and the personification of death (La Muerta) in the lead up to All Souls’ Day. Candles, paper wreaths and seasonal flowers are also sold.
Many families have special gatherings at cemetery graves which are decorated with candles, wreaths, floral arrangements, and colorful paper streamers. Events on the day include parties featuring a variety of popular Mexican dishes and drinks.
In order to celebrate, the families make altars and place ofrendas (offerings) of food such as pan de muertos baked in shapes of skulls and figures, candles, incense, yellow marigolds known as cempazuchitl (also spelled zempasuchil) and most importantly a photo of the departed soul is placed on the altar. Incense sticks are lit to help the departed find their way.
It might sound somewhat morbid, but the Mexicans react to death with mourning along with happiness and joy. They look at death with the same fear as any other culture, but there is a difference. They reflect their fear by mocking and living alongside death.
Living alongside death means that Mexicans have to learn to accept it within their lives. Death is apparent in everyday life. It is in art and even in children’s toys. It is not respected as it is in other cultures. Children play “funeral” with toys that are made to represent coffins and undertakers.
Death is laughed at in its face. Many euphemisms are used for death, La calaca (the skeleton), la pelona (“baldy”), la flaca (“skinny”), and la huesada (“bony”). There are refranes, sayings, and poems that are popular with day of the dead. These sayings are cliches and lose meaning when translated.
For example “La muerte es flaca y no puede conmigo” means “Death is skinny/weak and she can’t carry me.” Calaveras (skulls) are decorated with bright colors with the name of the departed inscribed on the head. Children carrying yellow marigolds enjoy the processions to the cemetery. At the cemetery, music is played and dances are made to honor the spirits. Death is a celebration in Mexico. Death is among them.