In less than three short weeks, the Christian world will observe All Saint’s Day and All Souls’ Day, on November the 1st and the 2nd. Still mostly Christian, but somewhat mixed, there is a parallel observance, a festival of the dead in Mexico and some other Latin American countries – Dia de los Muertos. (Or Dia de Muertos, depending on whom do you talk to and where)
It starts in the evening of October, 31st, goes on with the “el Dia de los innnocentes” which in fact means the day of the children and the festivity comes to its culmination with the much more known Dia de los Muertos, on November 2.
About Halloween First
Most of Europe has Halloween or All Saints’Eve, All Saint’s Day and All Souls’ Day. Actually, Halloween is still a celebration that is accepted by some and banned by other Christians, as a sin and a paganism. As the custom itself has both pagan and Christian roots, I wouldn’t undertake to decide who’s right and who’s not.
In our family Halloween has always been special. I come from a country where people hardly knew about it, back a few decades. Despite that, I drew my daughter’s face into a green witch and her kindergarten friend into a skeleton when they were only 4. His Mom and I made some costumes for them and we went through the town like that. Everyone was staring, of course, and turning their heads to see them better. They both enjoyed it immensely.
Since then, not one Halloween passed without a party, a long planning on the characters, the food, the costumes. Nowadays, my daughter is a grown up, but they still gather each year in The Netherlands, where she studies, for a Halloween party, even though they have to fly from 6 different countries.
Last year, their theme was Alice in Wonderland. She picked the Mad Hatter and the others chose what character to impersonate from the story, as well. I heard it was a lot of fun. And that’s my point – it is such a great fun, partying without any intention of conjuring the dead or asking them to intercede or…
All Saint’s Day and All Souls’ Day is something else. We remember our deceased loved ones and honor them, take flowers on their graves, light special candles and many goes to church for a morning or afternoon mass and pray.
About Dia de los Muertos
Dia de los Muertos is also a combination of two ancient celebrations, of an Aztec one and of All Souls Day, brought to Mexico by Spanish invaders. It is also about the dead loved ones, but in a very/somewhat different way. It is a joyful time there.
The death is considered an inevitable part of the life and not something that should be feared. Family remains the most important structure of Mexican society, so family ties do not break with someone’s death. They are thought of fondly and as if they were still here, with them.
It is believed that the dead would be insulted by mourning, so they are remembered not with sadness, but with joy. Parties, drink, food and whatever the deceased enjoyed in their lifetime are on the menu for these days.
This short animated video about the meaning of Dia de los Muertos was a Student Academy Award Gold Medal winner in 2013 :
Also, a very nice Disney film “Coco” was released three years ago, just before Dia de los Muertos which shows the many layers of the celebration (but it is too long to be embedded here…) However, here is the trailer, if you want to see what it is about:
The spirits of deceased loved ones are celebrated in many ways. Small altars are made in the houses with the photos and names of the honored ancestors, with candles and food, loved by the deceased, as if inviting them to eat and drink and enjoy being home for a couple of hours. Some favorite belongings of the honoree might be there, as well.
The cleaning of the tombs is also considered a joyful activity, often accompanied by singing and talking to the deceased ones. Generally, everyone is acting as if the dead were present and many believe they can communicate with them during these events. Well, at least with their spirit.
Tombs are neatly and generously decorated, often with marigolds. Marigolds are believed to help guide the dead to this world, to their homes, due to their vibrant color and scent. It is not rare to see a path of marigold petals all the way from cemetery to the home of the deceased.
In the evening, many are spending the night around tombs, which are well lit with candles, generously decorated. Food is brought to the cemetery and feasts are held around the tomb. Food offerings are also left for the dead. It is believed that the dead would eat the essence of the food, so, even if it looks intact, it is “empty”, has no nutritious value afterwards.
In some places, even a mariachi band is invited by the grave to help the family to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. Family members visit the graves to celebrate the lives of those they’ve lost, not to mourn. Also, to remind them that they will never be forgotten.
On Dia de los Muertos, the deceased are awakened from their year-long sleep, to share celebrations with their loved ones as the part of the community, at least for a short time, when they go back, until the next year.
Symbols of the Holiday:
The most recognizable symbol are by all means skulls and skeletons. They can be found in everything: Candies in form of a skull (sugar skulls) or coffins are widely used, even as a small present to friends, colleagues.
Also, the four elements are represented-the earth, the air, the water and the fire.
Bakers bake special sweet breads rolls called bread of the dead (pan de muerto). They are decorated with a dough circle which is the presentation of a skull and crossed “bones”, i.e. dough stripes. It has a special flavor, which is considered to represent the memory of the ancestors. This bread is to symbolize earth.
Water is left in a jug, for the deceased to appease thirst after a journey. Fire is the flame of the candles, which are placed in a form of a cross, which is believed to help the dead to find their way.
Paper cutouts with skeletons, or skulls and bones are often used as a decoration on altars. These lightweight papers symbolize the wind (air), as one of the four elements. Many ornaments, toys, dolls are made of paper or paper mache.
Colors Used Each Have a Meaning:
Purple represents grief, mourning, pain
White stands for purity and hope
Red symbolizes blood that keeps life alive
Pink-the joy of a reunion with family members
Orange stands for sun and for marigolds which represent death, but also a way for the spirits to come home.
Monarch butterflies are another symbol of Dia de los Muertos. As they appear exactly around these days, it arouses a belief that the spirits of the dead are the ones that live in these beautiful creatures and their arrival means the spirits arrived themselves.
Copalli incense, which is also prepared as a gift to the spirits, comes from the copal tree. Its turning from the tree into a perfumed smoke represents the transformation from the physical to the supernatural. The smoke is believed to carry the prayers straight to the heavens and gods, while rising up to the sky.
Parades that are held are very colorful, almost everyone is wearing a costume, children too and either has a mask on, or has a painted face, mostly in form of a very decorated, vivid skull. These are not meant to be scary, as for Halloween, for example, they are more joyful, often humorous. Many of these are hand-made, but also ready bought items are available for Dia de los Muertos.
Big skeletons are also built, with clothes on, as if they were alive, nowadays frequently in some funny or joyful position, doing something enjoyable, having fun, playing guitar or dancing
Children in schools write poems for Dia de los Muertos, called calaveras, the same as skulls. They usually describe in a cheerful way the transition from life to death. Sarcastic epitaphs are also considered to be literal calaveras.
This is how perhaps the today’s huge symbol of Dia de los Muertos was born, more than a century ago. An illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada, created La Catrina (with a different name then, though), a female half-skeleton, a skull rather, with an elegant hat. It was a satirical drawing, a criticism of the society and was meant to remind people that whether rich or poor, upper class or not, we will all become a skeleton eventually. Later, Diego Rivera used the idea and added the whole skeleton, now in a fancy dress, into a mural he painted.
Almost all the calacas and calaveras are shown as they enjoy life, funny and entertaining events and situations, dressed in fancy clothes, wearing a big smile. It is all about the life of the deceased loved ones, which is believed they come back to, for a few hours, so the living try to make it as much fun for them as it is possible. As much as it is a celebration of one’s ancestors, it is also an acceptance of death as something natural and inevitable stage of life, rather than as something to be feared.
All Saint’s Day and All Souls’ Day in Europe
On the other side, here in Europe, we view these two days as an opportunity to remember hour deceased ones with love, honor and sadness about having lost them.
Britannica: “All Souls’ Day, in Roman Catholicism, a day for commemoration of all the faithful departed, those baptized Christians who are believed to be in purgatory because they died with the guilt of lesser sins on their souls. It is observed on November 2.”
Our customs are much less colorful in Europe. We mostly attend a mass in the church, if we are believers, we pray… Graves of our departed loved ones are cleaned and we visit the cemetery on the day, with a flower bouquet. We try not to make too much noise, as not to disturb or disrespect others or the dead of others visiting.
Traditionally, we mostly take chrysanthemums and place them in special grave flower holders, hoping they would last a couple of days, at least. In some places it is acceptable to place artificial chrysanthemums, or other artificial grave flowers, instead.
We visit all the graves of our deceased that are in the same cemetery and take flowers and/or candles for everyone we loved. Nowadays there is an abundance of various candles with cross or angel symbols on them, specially designed for this occasion, made to be able to burn for many hours after we leave.
We also honor our dead, but we view it more as a sadness, grieving and mourning their death, than a joyful celebration of their lives.
We have our sweets, as well, which we can usually grab from the stands at the entrance or exit from the cemetery and they include all sorts of candies, in no particular shape. In eastern parts of Europe, at least, this is also the first day flame roasted chestnuts are bought, usually wrapped into newspaper cones. Then you hurry home, to be able to eat them while they are still warm. Your fingers are black from the char on the bark, but it is a small price for such a treat, after an hour or two in a usually cold weather outside.
I recently had a chance to read a great post on literature character costumes for Halloween, which reminded me of these dates and inspired this post. Thank you, Christine.
Where do you live, how do you honor your loved ones who passed away? Have you had a chance to see closely other approaches, perhaps? What are your thoughts in favor of one or the other way? I’d very much like to read them in comments, so, please, share them with us.
And, as always, feel free to reach out, should you have any questions and I’ll be happy to give you an answer to the best of my knowledge.
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