Day of the dead - Dia de los Muertos

Its is a tradition we hear more and more of as it is starting to become more prominent in all countries all over the world. Sugar skulls are very much in fashion but what is their significance? With this tradition being celebrated now all over the world, some may not realise what it is they are actually celebrating or it's meaning or significance. What is the Day of the dead all about?
Sarah Chumacero
21st October 2017.
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Sugar skulls are very much in fashion at the moment and a lot of people seem to have 'Day of dead' tattoos. It all originates from the Mexican tradition - Day of the Dead otherwise known as Dia de los Muertos. There is even a kid's movie coming out later this year so we can expect to see a lot of Day of the Dead inspired costumes this Halloween. What is this tradition all about?

What is the Day of the Dead festival?

This tradition originates from Southern Mexico. It co incides with All Souls and All Saints Day which is a Catholic holiday which is also celebrated in countries such as Italy, South America, Spain and the Philippines. It is starting to become quite popular in America and is also starting to gain a lot of interest here in Australia as well. The All Souls and All Saints Day is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd and is basically to honour those that have passed. They would involve special masses and a trip to the cemetery where family would clean up the grave sites of loved ones. In Southern Mexico, using and elaborating on this tradition, the indigenous people also believe that on October 31st, the gates of heaven open at midnight which allow all Children which have passed over to come down to Earth and spend 24 hours with their families. On the 2nd of November, the adults in the family who have passed come down from heaven and enjoy all the festivities which families have prepared for them. The Mexican tradition itself is over 3000 years old dating back to the Aztecs. It was originally thought that the festival itself was sacreligious but it just never went away - if anything it just became more popular.

How is it celebrated?

Altars otherwise known as 'ofrendas' are created and sit in the homes. They are decorated with candles, flowers, fruit, nuts, plates of turkey mole, tortillas and special 'Day of the dead' breads. The alter needs to have a lot of food and drink to sufficiently feed the spirits who are very tried from their journey. toys are left for the children and cigarettes for the adults. Some families spend over 2 months of income just to fund celebrating this tradition. They do so as they believe it not only keeps the family close together but in pleasing the spirits, in return the happy spirits will provide them with protection, good luck and wisdom. The take a trip to the local cemetery usually in a procession at night time under candlelight with lots of music and tequila. The clean up the grave site of family members and sit by the grave with a picnic of food and spend time with their loved ones remember and paying tribute to those who have passed.

Why are sugar skulls used?

The sugar skull tradition dates back to the 18th century in Mexico. Sugar art itself was used by Italian missionaries in the 17th Century at Easter time where sugar lambs and angels were used to decorate side altars at the Catholic church. Mexico who had an abundance of sugar learnt this art of craft from friars and adapted them for their own religious celebrations. Sugar skull is basically a skull sculpted out of sugar which was to represent a departed soul. It co incided with the Day of the dead as families would write the name of the departed spirit on the forehead of the skull and place it on their altar in honour of their impending return during the Day of the dead. They are then decorated with a lot of colour (as a lot of colour is incorporated into this festival as it is a celebration not a day of mourning).

It is not a day of mourning

It is very far from people dressing in black, sitting with candles grieving. It is a celebration and a big party. There is a lot of food, there is a lot of family and there is a lot of smiling. The aim of the festival is not to be scared of death as they believe it is not the end. The death of ancestors was not to be a sad affair but a celebration of the life they lived and the time they spent with their families. Some cities have big parades with floats, processions leading to the cemetery, music, dancing and of course lots of food.

It is a beautiful concept and a wonderfully beautiful tradition. To participate in a true Day of the dead festival I imagine would be quite a moving experience. My husband's family is of South American decent and while I have not participated in this particular festival, I have embraced and participated in some of their other traditions. They involve very simple elements mainly consisting of food and family. Everything has a meaning and purpose so I can only imagine how powerful it would be to be a part of this celebration. The Day of the dead is a very spiritual thing and it is something to unite family members together. These elements are somewhat lost in the way a lot of people tend to celebrate it today. A lot of people particularly in countries where it was not traditionally celebrated probably don't really understand why they would paint their face like a sugar skull or what the significance of the festival really is. While we may not celebrate this day traditionally like other cultures, we can use it an opportunity to unite with our family to remember and celebrate the life of those that have passed. It is something that seems to be blending in with Halloween quite naturally as they are a fit, but it is important for us to remember and respect where this tradition comes from. So next time you pick up a sugar skull, see a dancing skeleton or look at painting your face with a 'day of the dead' theme, take a minute to remember what it all means.

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