IN some Western countries, the first of November is known as All Saints’ Day, the day on which the Christians commemorate those who they’ve lost. The inhabitants of Mexico, however, take it a bridge further. They celebrate the lives of those who have passed away in a very extraordinary way.
Honouring the dead by holding a huge feast may seem lugubrious to most of us, but it is an ancient tradition in some countries in Latin-America. Día los Muertos is a public holiday that starts 31st October and ends 2nd November. There are a fair amount of traditions connected with it: the ofrendas, Catrina, skeletons in different shapes and sizes and many more.
The altars in the graveyards are covered with ofrendas – a collection of objects to welcome the dead. An ofrenda is (usually) created for an individual person. If there is no altar or the altar is removed, the ofrenda is placed at home. It is made out of three layers: the first one contains photos of the deceased, a mirror, candles and crosses, the second contains treats: the favourite snacks and drinks of those who are commemorated – if a child is being honoured, you may find some toys alongside the food, the third layer contains even more candles, a bowl with some water – called cenotes, soap, a mirror and a towel – this way, the dead can refresh themselves. The treats are eaten by the family after the feast. Aside of the three layers, an ofrenda is often decorated with cempazuchitl (an Aztecan flower which guides the dead), skeletons, a bow made out of bamboo which is decorated with flowers and fruits, skulls and incense.
Skeletons and skulls
Wherever you go in Mexico during this holiday, you will find skeletons and skulls in any size and shape. The skeletons are often made out of plastic or papier-mâché and they are always doing (singing, dancing, laughing, …). They remind us of the fact that we all will end up like skeletons in the future. The skulls are made out of sugar and are sold at markets. They are decorated with different colours and often have the name of the deceased on them.
Another prop in the celebrations is Catrina, a female skeleton. She is elegant and beautiful and often wears a European hat. She symbolizes a lazy but nicely dressed individual. Most people see her as traitor. If most people think of her that way, why do they include her? Catrina reminds them that no matter who you are or what you do, everyone ends up the same, dead.
Día los Muertos may seem like Halloween, but it is slightly different and more colourful. Hispanics commemorate the dead in a less serious and respectful way. They don’t fear death, but see it as a new chapter. As J.K. Rowling said: “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”