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Day of the Dead – a time for remembrance and festivity

A woman in traditional Calavera Catrina costume stands out from the crowd celebrating Dia de los Muertos

Picture by GPS via CreativeCommons

Sugar skulls, flowers, food, lights and painted faces are an iconic part of the traditions and rites of the Day of the Dead.

Mexico’s colourful Dia de los Muertos has captured imaginations around the world. This annual festival is a time for remembering the much-loved dead and being mindful of our own mortality.

Day of the Dead skull motif

It’s such a colourful way of reflecting the brevity of life and making the most, that people have begun to embrace the Day of the Dead in the UK.

It’s long been said that we’ve become out of touch with death. An occasion for masquerade, colour and light, Day of the Dead could perhaps influence us to be less afraid of facing how death touches all of our lives.

What day is Day of the Dead and where is it celebrated?

A colourful Day of the Dead procession with  gardlands of traditional marigolds

Dia de los Muertos is celebrated with festivities that can span from October 31 to November 4. In Mexico, the festival is a public holiday.

It’s also an important holiday in countries including Guatemala and Brazil and in parts of North America with significant Hispanic communities.

Centred around the Catholic feast days of All Hallows (All Saints) Day and All Souls Day on November 1 and 2, Dia de los Muertos has its roots in Aztec and Mayan traditions that date back 3,000 years or more.

People visit family graves on day of the Dead in EcuadorVisiting family graves on Day of the Dead in Excuador. Picture via A Davey via CreativeCommons

Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe influenced much of the now-traditional iconography of Dia de los Muertos. Skull makeup, flower garlands and flowing Edwardian-style gowns, are known as La Catrina costumes and worn by many people marking Day of the Dead. These were inspired by a satirical political etching he created called La Calavera Catrina (the Elegant Skull), in around 1910.

Day of the Dead Celebrations

Day of the Dead Sugar skullsSugar skulls are among traditional Day of the Dead treats.Picture by Tomas Castelazo via CreativeCommons

With more and more people wanting to join in the spirit of the Day of the Dead, late October and early November is becoming a festive period that can span a week or more.

In the UK, more and more Dia de Los Muertos-themed parties, and festivals, as well as family-friendly fiestas are held every year. Click here to discover Day of the Dead events happening in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2018 that celebrate some of the customs and tradition of the festival.

Day of the Dead sugar skulls

There’s a carnival atmosphere to some of the biggest organised Dia de los Muertos celebrations in the world.

Colourful processions, music, song, and candlelit vigils draw thousands of people to mark the day of the dead in towns and cities across Mexico.

In some places, families gather at cemeteries to serenade the dead with traditional songs and music, while in Mexico City and at Aguascalientes’ famous four-day Festival de las Calaveras (Festival of the Skulls), the streets and the public squares are thronged with revellers in costume with painted faces.

day of the Dead: People in calavera costume on a night time Dia de los Muertos procession Picture by AI83tiro via CreativeCommons

For those who have grown up with the tradition, Mexican Day of the Dead is an important cultural and spiritual celebration, as well as a time to mourn and remember the dead with dignity and respect. It’s a way of showing that death does not diminish the love we had for them, nor their importance in our lives.

At the historic Concordia cemetery in El Paso, Texas, it’s a day for visiting and tending the graves of relatives amid a carnival atmosphere of costume, 10-foot tall skeletons, fire-dancing, music, dance, face painting, folklore and song that attracts thousands of people.

A giant skeleton for Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City A giant calavera (skeleton) on Day of the Dead in Mexico City. Picture by Randal Sheppard via Creative Commons

The famous Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles is the final resting place of many film stars and a venue for live arts events around the year, as well as funerals.

Its Dia de los Muertos festival has become legendary, with incredible costumes, paper statues, food, decorative shrines, music and dance, staged as a glorious tribute to much-loved people who have died and a reminder death comes to us all.

Why do we celebrate day of the Dead? Day of the Dead history

Day of the dead CatrinasPicture by Tomas Castelazo via CreativeCommons

Day of the Dead history dates back thousands of years in Mexico and Central America. The Aztecs and other ancient cultures honoured the dead at this time of year, for millennia.

When Catholic Spaniards began to colonise these countries in the 15th century, they incorporated various Catholic beliefs into these ancient festivals. Today, Dia de los Muertos celebrations are a combination of these heritages, as well as local customs that have evolved and become tradition.

In the UK, All Souls Day, or the Day of the Dead was a significant day for people, before the religious reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries.

A etching depicting Souling, an old English tradition around the time of Halloween and all Souls Day Souling was an old English tradition around the time of Halloween and all Souls Day. Picture via WikimediaCommons

Long before that, the passing of summer into deathly winter at the end of October had been marked by Samhain, an important occasion still observed by people of Pagan and Wiccan beliefs, today. The Celts believed that the onset of winter opened the divide, with the dead returning to walk the earth for a night and a day.

Day of the Dead skull motif

November 2 was designated as a Christian day for remembering and praying for the souls of people around 998 AD. It was believed that when they died, restless souls spent time between Earth and Heaven, doing penance for their sins, before finding peace in the afterlife.

Yet many religious feast days were regarded by people as an opportunity for revels with family and friends. These celebrations often had their roots in the old pagan traditions, with October and early November a time of harvest fruits, feasting, dancing and bonfires.

day of the Dead skull and marigolds

In the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic faiths in the UK, All Soul’s Day is still a special day for people to go to church and quietly pray for the souls of loved ones who have died.

If it falls on a Sunday, All Soul’s Day is instead marked with a church service on November 3, when a 1,300 year-old prayer called The Office of the Dead is read out.

What do you do on the Day of the Dead?

A smiling woman besides a shrine dedicated to family members who have died, on Day of the DeadFamilies create shrines to remember much-loved family members by, on Day of the Dead. Picture by jay Galvin via CreativeCommons

According to traditional belief, Mexican Day of the Dead is when the spirits of dead ancestors return home to visit their family and community.

In anticipation of their spirit visitors, families create brightly-decorated shrines called ofrendas. These are laden with food, flowers, gifts and tributes that often tell the story of someone’s life.

On the second day of the festival, everyone goes to the local cemetery to clean their family graves. Each tombstone is decorated with more colourful gifts, bright flowers, candles and food.

Day of the Dead skull motif

Some typical Day of the Dead offerings

  • Yellow marigolds, a traditional symbol of death, purple orchids and white amaryllis.

  • Decorated sugar candy in the shape of skulls (calaca)

  • Sweet bread rolls called Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead)

  • Candles or battery-powered lanterns

  • Toys and gifts, such as small wooden skeletons

  • Decorative objects with skull, bones and flower motifs

  • Cigarettes and/or their favourite tipple

Where do they celebrate day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead skull cookiesSugar calaca. Picture by Nicole Danielson via CreativeCommons

Day of the Dead is an important holiday in countries including Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil and in many parts of North America with significant Hispanic communities.

Other countries across the world have their ways of marking the Day of the Dead in November, too. It’s a significant day for remembering loved ones in many European countries, including parts of France, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Hungary. Candles are lit, and windows or doors left open to welcome back a loved one for a visit.

In Poland on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it’s the traditional time to visit family graves and the cemeteries are lit up with thousands of candles, lanterns and festooned with flowers.

In olden days in Ireland on the eve of All Souls Day, families would light a candle in the window to guide the souls of loved ones home. In Celtic and Gaelic tradition, this was Samhain, the time of year when the veil between the spirit and mortal worlds thinned, as the summer died and winter became king.

In Ireland and Wales, long after ancient beliefs had been assimilated into the new, families would leave doors unlocked and food on the table for their loved ones.

Day of the Dead facts

  • Soul cakes are an old Day of the Dead and Halloween tradition in England. Before the days of trick or treating, children and poor people would go souling: knocking from door to door and be given soul cakes, or soul bread. It was believed that for every piece doled out to the needy, someone’s soul would get to Heaven sooner.

Day of the Dead skull motif

  • Decorated sugar skulls are a traditional Dia de los Muertos treat in Mexico, while in Poland, pink and white sweets called Pańska Skórka (Lord’s crust) are a must.

Day of the Dead skull motif

  • Day of the Dead is about remembering the spirit of people who were loved. It’s not about being scared.

Day of the Dead skull motif

  • Some people sleep over in the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried, during Dia de los Muertos. It’s a chance for the whole family – living and dead – to spend time together.

Day of the Dead skull motif Some people believe that little children (‘angelitos’– ‘little angels’) visit their family in spirit form on October 31, while older loved ones return the following day.

Discover more about many fascinating festivals and traditions held around the world to remember much loved people who have died, in our tradition and culture pages.