El Día de los Muertos – The Day of the Dead

Dia de los MuertosThis celebration is held in Mexico and South American countries and Spain starts on October 31st at midnight and finishes on November 2nd. It dates back to pre-Columbian times when people honoured their ancestors. The meaning behind it is to honour the dead and to celebrate life. It is also sometimes known as the “Día de Todos los Santos”.

What happens during the celebration?

People remember the dead by telling stories about them and they also clean the graves of their loved ones that have passed on and lay flowers.

1st November is a day to remember children and is known as the “Día de los Angelitos” (Day of the Little Angels).

2nd November is for remembering adults who have died. This is the official “Día de los Muertos”. People believe that the dead come to life again on this day. There is even a belief that if the dead see that they are not being honoured on this day they will haunt the living.

Enjoying the Day of the Day of the Dead

This is a celebration to remember your loved ones and to celebrate being alive therefore you should try not to get too morbid and focused on the haunting aspects. If you do have a loved one in spirit the best way to celebrate is to remember all the positive things about their life and not dwell on the sadness that they are no longer here.

If you are lucky enough to visit a country where the Day of the Dead is celebrated you should try to join in with the local customs, take photos and try the local typical foods that they eat during this festival. It is quite strange that this celebration is full of colour and life when it is all to do with the dead.

An altar

One tradition is to prepare an altar for loved ones that have passed on. People lay out photos of their relative as well as their favourite foods and drinks. The altar can be in a cemetery or in the family home. Relatives of the loved one sit and talk about their memories with them with music playing.

To make an altar you need “el alfeñique” which is a sweet used to make skulls (calaveras), frutos (fruits) and other little figurines. They are laid out on the altar and are called ofrendas, (offerings). It is said that the deceased consume the essence of these offerings, and then once they go, the living get to eat and enjoy the food and drink.

Traditional foods

Foods that are traditionally eaten are pan de muerto (bread of dead) which is a special bread made on this day. There is mole, which is a thick chocolate sauce, fruits and spices.

They also drink atole, which is made up of corn meal and water, and flavoured with fruit.

Golletes are pink sugared doughnuts that the dead are supposed to like.

El cempasúchil (sometimes called cempasuchil) is the yellow or orange marigold that is used in the altars or laid on the graves. These flowers are said to be the symbol of death, or the flower of death (la flor de muertos). You see them everywhere in the lead up to the Day of the Dead. They make the end of life seem happier.

A lot of the decoration for the altar is made from papel picado, which is a type of crepe paper that is cut into detailed and beautiful designs. There’s also el copal (the incense), which is very important in any ceremony, las velas (the candles) and el candelero (the candlestick), used to hold them.

Day of the Dead Vocabulary

la muerte – death

el cadáver – the corpse

la tumba – the tomb

el cementerio – cementary

los ángeles – the angels

los espíritus – the spirits

el altar – the altar

el ataúd – the coffin

The ceremony

The actual ceremony of the Day of the Dead involves placing all of the above ofrendas (offerings) at the altar, sharing nice memories of the deceased and eating all the Day of the Dead traditional foods.

It can also include la danza de los viejitos (the dance of the old people), which is a where the dancers wear masks that look like old people.

There is also la iluminación (the illumination), when thousands of candles are lit in the cemetery. These are supposed to guide the dead souls to their altars.

Las calaveras are the songs and poems written about the festival. At the end of the celebration, las caretas are masks worn to supposedly scare off the spirits.

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