Anybody who has ever been fortunate enough to find themselves in Mexico during the first weekend of November will surely have experienced the spectacle of Day of the Dead. Running across the 1st and 2nd November, Day of the Dead (or Día de los Muertos) is a national holiday in Mexico and its traditional cultural celebrations are a must see for anyone who is lucky enough to cruise through Mexico at just the right time. Colourful celebrations spill out onto the streets throughout the country and such is the cultural importance of Day of the Dead, that it is acknowledged by UNESCO.
A tribute to ancestors who have passed away, Day of the Dead celebrations are incredibly colourful affairs. Though the festival is celebrated in Mexican-American areas around the world, Mexico itself is undoubtedly the epicentre for Day of the Dead festivities. The origins of the festival date back to Aztec civilisations from almost 3,000 years ago, with the festival originally taking place in the 9th month of the Aztec calendar (around August time on today’s calendar) and lasting the whole month.
The indigenous people of Mexico believe the soul is eternal and that it can travel back and forth from this world to the next. Day of the Dead is based on this belief and on celebrating the souls who return to their families each year, connected in principle to the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Day of the Dead celebrations vary depending on region, though the holiday is almost always an expensive occasion, with indigenous Mexican families often spending over two months’ income on the festivities. Streets are decorated with dancing skeletons, people paint their faces in skeleton designs and central to celebrations is the setting up of an altar (altares de muerto) in the family home. The altar is decorated with four elements from nature; water is represented by drinks, wind is represented by fluttering tissue paper decorations in a multitude of colours, candles represent the element of fire and finally marigold flowers are used to represent earth. The favourite foods of loved ones who have passed are laid on the altar, while families and friends gather to eat, drink and dance. Day of the Dead celebrations also traditionally incorporate the eating of pan de muerto, sweet egg bread baked into the shape of skulls, bones, flowers or animals.
Sugar skulls, or calavera, are globally acknowledged as a sort of mascot for Day of the Dead. A folk art rather than a confection, sugar skulls are traditionally made by a method that has stayed the same since the 17th century. Artisans begin making the sugar skulls four to six months before Day of the Dead to ensure they have adequate numbers to meet demand. Boiled sugar is poured into moist clay moulds, which are then left until almost cool. At this point, the excess sugar is tipped out of the mould, leaving just the opaque hollow sugar shell. Once completely cool, the sugar skulls are decorated as brightly as possible and with every adornment one can imagine. Sequins, foils, feathers, beads, glitter and colourful icing are all popular decorations. Finally, the name of family members both alive and departed are written across the foreheads of the skulls, before they are either given as gifts or sat upon the altars.
Whether you’re witnessing it from afar or joining in the celebrations, Day of the Dead is a great spectacle to behold if your day on Mexican shores falls just right, a traditional sugar skull proving the perfect souvenir of your trip!