El día de los muertos, the Day of the Dead, is perhaps Mexico’s best known festival. The iconography of sugar skulls and skeletons dressed in garish costumes may seem a touch morbid and macabre to us Brits, with our rather more sombre attitudes towards death, but in fact the Day of the Dead is a celebration of the lives lived by those who have now departed.
This tradition of celebrating the dead dates back at least as far as the Aztecs, and was later influenced by the Catholic beliefs of the European conquistadores, the cultures combining to create the vibrant and unique festival celebrated today. The Day of the Dead is actually celebrated over several days, beginning on 31 October, All Hallows’ Eve (or Halloween as it is now better known). In most regions of Mexico, children and infants are honoured on 1 November, known as Día de los inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), while adults are remembered on 2 November, Día de los muertos or Día de los difuntos (Day of the Dead).
During the three day period, families visit cemeteries to tidy up their relatives’ graves and decorate them with ofrendas, offerings made up of photographs of the deceased, images of saints, sweets, toys for children, and shots of tequila or mescal for adults. Many people also build altars or small shrines in their homes, and short poems known as calaveras are written, mocking the unusual habits of dead relatives or recounting amusing anecdotes about them.
Perhaps the most iconic image associated with the Day of the Dead is a figure called La Calavera Catrina, ‘The Elegant Skull’, created by the famous Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada in the 1910s. This striking image, of a female skeleton dressed in the style of the upper classes of the time, was intended as a satirical swipe at those Mexicans who aspired to be like the aristocrats of Europe in the years leading up to the Mexican Revolution. Catrina figures are now a prominent feature in the Day of the Dead celebrations, as are the sugar skulls given as gifts to both the living and the dead.
In recent years, a new tradition has emerged in some regions, where children in costume go from door to door asking for calaveritas, small gifts of sweets or money, much like Halloween trick-or-treating. While some might bemoan the incursion of this more American custom, it’s also a great example of how different cultures can cross-pollinate to produce new traditions, much like the mixing of Aztec and Catholic cultures that gave rise to the Day of the Dead in the first place.