El Dia de los Muertos - the Day of the Dead

Date Created: 31.10.2015

And so we find ourselves again at the end of October. We can feel the last stirrings of autumn as the evenings close in, and the winter chill is almost upon us.

In Mexico, people are busily preparing to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, where families gather to pray for and remember their family members and friends who have died. This is one of the most important religious festivals in the Mexican calendar and dates back at least 3000 years to the pre-Hispanic civilisation and the ‘ancestor rituals’ observed in honour of Mictecacihuati, the Aztec Queen of the Underworld, who watched over the bones of the dead. In ancient times people kept their loved ones’ skulls in order to honour their memories, and this has given rise to the important decorative skull theme we see in the celebrations today.

The festival is celebrated over three days, October 31st, November 1st and November 2nd, when the gates of Heaven are believed to open allowing the spirits of the departed to mingle with the living for a short time. Families gather to build altars, ofrendas, in their homes, which are beautifully decorated with flowers, candles, sugar skulls, cardboard skeletons, tissue paper decorations and offerings of food and toys. Family graves are visited, tended and decorated: the spirits are being honoured and welcomed home for the duration of the holiday. It is hoped that the happy spirits will bring protection, good luck and wisdom to their families in the year ahead. People dress up, and sing and dance, and cook and eat their loved ones’ favourite foods: this is not a morbid festival but one of love and remembrance and a reminder that life is to be lived joyously and to the full.

Interestingly the festival was moved from the summer by the Catholic Church when the Spanish came to Mexico, in order to coincide with Hallomas –the holy days of All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day observed throughout the Christian world and now widely marked by the secular celebration of Halloween. Hallomas in its turn had been scheduled by the early Celtic Christians to coincide with the Pagan festival of Samhain, when the veil between the living and the dead was considered to be at its thinnest and the spirits of the dead were able to mingle with the living. Fires were lit to honour them, and people dressed up in costumes to confuse any evil or mischievous spirits which might appear – giving us the basis of our Halloween tradition.

So wherever in the world you may find yourself over this next week, should you be celebrating Dia de los Muertos itself, or lighting bonfires or candles, or giving out Halloween candy, or maybe painting a skull onto a child’s face as they prepare to go to a Halloween party, you are making a connection with spiritual traditions which go back many thousands of years, right across the globe.