Rituals of the World

Día de los Muertos

The Mexican Day of the Dead is a ritual with almost officially certified importance and UNESCO has meanwhile recognized it as part of the immaterial heritage of humanity. In this case, the heritage part is extremely fitting, as the Día de los Muertos is a merging of Christian and old Mexican traditions.

According to ancient Mexican beliefs, the dead come back from the afterlife to visit their living friends and families to celebrate a happy reunion with music, dance and good food.

On November 2, All Souls’ Day, Catholics in Europe remember their dead, quietly pray for intercession, and place little lights on their graves. However, the only thing the Día de los Muertos has in common with this tradition is the official public holiday. The celebration itself is loud and cheerful, with flower-decorated streets, skulls made of sugar, and food on colorful, mobile altars where the deceased can eat. In traditional Mexican popular belief, the dead have not gone forever, but return to their families for a few days in the fall, making the Día de los Muertos a family reunion party. The many symbols of death and skeletons that people use as decorations everywhere are not a warning to scare people, but rather a macabre joke.

Day of the Dead versus Halloween

A mother paints her daughter’s Sugar Skull makeup during Day of the Dead celebration.

On the night of October 31, just before All Saints’ Day, Mexicans greet their deceased children. On November 2 the children are reunited with their adult ancestors – and finally celebrate their farewell with a picnic and a great deal of singing at the local cemetery.

The Day of the Dead thus goes on for a full three days – far longer than the typical American Halloween evening, which also includes Celtic and Irish traditions, but whose spiritual substance is largely no longer palpable. In actual fact, many Mexicans are afraid that their Day of the Dead could be pushed aside by the pumpkin-and-scary-clown custom from the north.

At the same time, in Europe, too, we are seeing an increasing number of skulls made of sugar and various items with bizarre symbols of death coming from Mexico. These are not an expression of a new popular belief, but an attempt by confectioners and gift retailers to popularize a new topic. Or perhaps the Día de los Muertos will suffer the same fate as Halloween previously and become a fixed ritual here as well.

Calavera (Sugar Skull) modified by MeisterSinger.

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