What is the Day of the Dead Festival?

The Day of the Dead Festival, or Dia de los Muertos, is a Mexican holiday that honours and remembers friends and loved ones who have passed away.

Although called the day of the dead, the festival actually lasts a number of days, starting on Halloween – 31st October – and lasting until 2nd November. It’s believed that on the Day of the Dead, the deceased return to earth to visit the living.

However, Dia de los Muertos is not a time for mourning – indeed, far from it. The festival is celebratory, respectful and exuberant in nature, as the deceased return to the mortal world for just a few days.

What to expect

When thinking of the Day of the Dead, images of the famous sugar skull masks and street parades may enter your head.

However, the key way of marking this occasion is to produce a shrine or altar at loved ones’ graves featuring their favourite things or pictures.

A number of street parties and parades take place as well, providing people with a chance to truly celebrate the lives of those who have now gone.

Ingrained in Mexican culture

Officially recognised by UNESCO as a holiday to be included on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, this festival has become iconic around the world. It’s now celebrated beyond Mexico – throughout Asia, Central and South America, and even in some European countries.

There is a great deal of superstition in Mexico regarding those who fail to celebrate this holiday, with tales abounding of ancestors who have become ill or even died after failing to mark the occasion appropriately.

How to celebrate Dia de los Muertos

There are a number of ways to join in the Day of the Dead celebrations. Custom dictates that graveyards are cleaned and decorated so that all-night candlelight vigils may take place.

It’s often the case that families will congregate throughout the graveyards all night. Musicians play as people talk and share stories about those who passed, sing songs or share poems they have written for the occasion.

Another tradition is to lay out blankets and pillows in your home so that the dead can rest after their journey into the mortal world, and to accompany this, you can leave out what is known as ofrenda. This is an offering designed to welcome the spirits of the deceased into your home.

The art of Mexican sugar skulls

Also known as Calaveras, sugar skulls are the recognisable smiling skull faces that represent the souls of the deceased.

Sugar art dates back to the 17th century, and as there was a great deal of sugar in Mexico – a country at the time too poor to import more ornate decorations – it was quick to adopt the practice. There are a number of ready-made skulls that you can decorate, or have a go at making your own from scratch for some family fun.

In addition to seeing skulls on altars and celebratory floats, you’ll also see those celebrating the holiday sporting similar skull face paint. Again, you can either try this yourself, or purchase a mask for something slightly easier.

Flowers are highly symbolic to this holiday, and so many designs will often incorporate flowers such as the Marigold, or cempazuchitl, which is considered to be the flower of the dead. If you can’t find any marigolds to use, be sure to paint one onto your decorations, as it’s believed this flower acts as a guiding beacon to help the dead find their way home.

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