The colourful Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead, is almost here and people around the world are getting ready for the festivities. Celebrated on 1 and 2 November, this holiday originated in Mexico but is celebrated throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. Over the years, the Day of the Dead festival has grown in popularity and even appears in prominent films. The 2015 James Bond movie Spectre features a large Day of the Dead fancy dress parade and, recently, Pixar and Disney also released Coco. This animated hit film follows a young boy as he journeys into the Land of the Dead to meet up with long-lost ancestors.
Further contributing to its growing popularity, UNESCO even added the “indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead” to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But what do we know about this rare holiday that celebrates death in such a lively and colourful way?
What is Day of the Dead?
Simply put, this two-day holiday is a celebration of the lives of the deceased and the general belief is that the dead arise from their eternal sleep on this day to celebrate alongside their loved ones. The Day of the Dead festival originated several thousand years ago in the Aztec, Toltec and Nahua cultures. They believed that death was a natural phase in life and that the dead were members of the community who were kept alive in memory and spirit.
On the Day of the Dead, relatives celebrate the lives of their lost loved ones with the deceased’s favourite food, drinks, and activities. This involves cleaning and decorating graves as well as making ofrendas - small, personal altars that honour the dead. You will often see symbols like calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls) in everything from candied sweets, parade masks and dolls.
How to celebrate the day
If you want to celebrate the Day of the Dead festival, here are our top five ideas for what you can do:
Hand out sugar skull candy
In keeping with the theme, sugar skull candy is exactly what the name suggests: skull-shaped sweets. A granulated sugar mixture is pressed into skull-shaped moulds and decorated. Hand these out if you want to give the neighbourhood’s children a sweet yet festive surprise.
Eat traditional Mexican foods
Food plays an integral role in the Day of the Dead festival. Indulge in Mole Negro, an intricate sauce made of peppers, chocolate, and other ingredients or enjoy some Sopa Azteca (tortilla soup) - a spicy soup that comes with ingredients like avocado, onions, cheese, limes, and chicharrón (pork rinds) on the side.
Listen to mariachi music
Dating back to at least the 18th century, mariachi is a musical tradition that comprises many different instruments, musical styles, singing techniques, clothing, and dancing. A typical traditional mariachi band consists of at least four musicians who play instruments like violin, guitar, guitarrón (a large bass guitar), and vihuela (a small five-string guitar with a round back). These bands stroll around busy areas wearing charro suits and sombreros and serenade anyone they encounter.
Bake a delicious “dead bread”
If you’re feeling creative, bake a traditional Pan de Muerto (dead bread) to celebrate the Day of the Dead. This sweet bread is a vital part of the ofrendas and is usually covered in sugar, sesame seeds, or coloured sugar. Its peculiar shape represents the dead: the round shape is the body, the bone figures are the extremities and the round piece on top is the skull.
Wear Day of the Dead costumes
If you’re going to a Day of the Dead fancy dress party, you will love the traditional costumes and face paint that is usually associated with this day. Women typically wear traditional Mexican dresses sporting vibrant colours and decorated with skulls, and they adorn their hair with colourful flowers. Men would usually wear more formal clothes such as a decorated suit with a tie, cane, and hat. The traditional face paint is for both men and women and is intended to be festive instead of scary.
Armed with the abovementioned knowledge, you can now celebrate the Mexican Day of the Dead festival according to all the traditions. If you’re not sure what to wear, check out these Day of the Dead fancy dress costumes that look like they stepped right out of a traditional parade. If you’re looking for your costume, the best strategy is to go for these kinds of outfits as they are the best representation of the traditional wear and it takes the stress away from having to craft your own.