What is the Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead marigolds and skulls

On Tuesday 2nd November, many Latin communities around the world will celebrate the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos). This well-known holiday has become synonymous with Gothic, yet vibrant, displays of skulls and fauna. But what exactly does it stand for?

The origins of the Day of the Dead

The first thing to note is that the Day of the Dead is not the same as Halloween – which itself is rooted in Pagan traditions about 2,000 years ago in Celtic Europe. The Day of the Dead actually unfolds over a period of two days, beginning with El Día de los Innocentes (The Day of the Children) on the 1st November and ending with the more widely-known El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead – adult version) on the 2nd November. Its origins go back about 3,000 years ago (1,000 years before Halloween came onto the scene) to central American Aztec, Toltec and Nahua communities, where death was seen as an integral element of cyclical life.

A celebration of life and death

The belief is that at midnight on 31st October, the border between the ‘spirit world’ and ‘real world’ opens, allowing the deceased to reunite with their living families for a brief period (children on the 1st November, and adults on the 2nd November). While the connotations have parallels with Halloween – with both holidays centred on the theme of death – the Day of the Dead is very much a positive celebration where living families remember their loved ones and respectfully treat them as honoured guests at their festivities. This is reflected in joyful and colourful make-up and decorations – not to mention bright orange marigold flowers, which are placed on the graves of the deceased to help souls find their way back to the living world and their families.

The origin of the skulls (calavera)

Probably the most ubiquitous symbol of the Day of the Dead is the skull (calavera in Spanish). For many pre-Columbian cultures (i.e. the period in the Americas before Christopher Columbus’ colonisation), indigenous communities would decorate walls with real skeletons (or lifelike motifs) as a sacrificial offering to the gods. Jump forward to the European Middle Ages and a genre of art called the Danse Macabre (also known as the ‘Dance of Death’) became prevalent, featuring skeletons dancing alongside the living as they make their way to their graves. Once Christianity reached Central America with the arrival of Spanish missionaries, it’s possible that the imagery from both pre- and post-Columbian cultures fused to form the skull motifs that we associate with the Day of the Dead.

Traditional foods of the Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead is also a time for feasting. Generally, people will put out sweets or foods for both the living and dead, some of which form part of the ‘ofrendas’: the offerings families leave for their loved ones to encourage them to visit.

Ofrendas have two versions for adult and child spirits. Ofrendas are decorated with marigolds, trinkets and photos of loved ones. Those that are laid out for children usually also include toys, sweets and snacks, whereas the adult versions include more mature items, such as tequila, atole (a warm, corn-based drink) and pan de muerto (bread of the dead). This is a sweet, soft bread – similar to brioche – often eaten with Nutella and whipped cream. This treat tends to only be made during the festival and is topped with bone-shaped decorations.

Atole is a non-alcoholic, corn-based drink and is commonly served warm with pan de muerto for dipping. It’s made from masa harina flour and has roots dating back to the Aztecs. The texture is similar to a runny porridge and is served alongside tamales to help people stay awake during the long nights involved in Día de los Muertos celebrations. 

Tamales are traditional steamed dishes made across Central and South America. They are made by placing a variety of different fillings inside a corn husk and steaming it, with the filling including corn, chicken, beans and sometimes a sweet ingredient. Tamales are regularly eaten during the long nights of the

Sugar skulls are a major feature of the festival, but they are designed to be admired and not eaten. Due to their sugary nature, they are very hard and used in ofrendas – painted with decorative and colourful patterns, and sometimes featuring glitter and feathers.

Today, Día de los Muertos is recognised by UNESCO as a holiday of global cultural importance, having been added to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity in 2008. This means that the celebration is safeguarded in the face of growing globalisation, ensuring that cultural diversity is maintained and such traditions are recognised and respected in a modern, outward-facing world.

Looking for a fun activity to celebrate Day of the Dead? Download our Day of the Dead mask here, colour it brightly like traditional sugar skulls and share it with us on social media! Don’t forget to tag us @dragonsteaching.

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