Dia de Muertos or the Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated from 31st October to the 2nd November. It is a fusion of Catholic beliefs with Aztec traditions and revolves around the belief that once a year the spirits of dead relatives return to visit those they left behind. In order to honour these dead, the living will visit the graves decorating them with flowers and leaving gifts for their dearly departed. There will be sugar skulls and orange marigolds and even toys for dead children. At their parties they ensure that the food and drink they have is a favourite of their dead relatives and they may leave out pillows and blankets for the dead to rest comfortably after their long journey. I love this idea. It would bring me great comfort to feel that my departed parents popped by to see me once a year. In fact they could come by every day if they wanted! Although I’m not sure I could cope with eating my mom’s favourite food every day as I’m not the biggest fan of liver and onions.
One of the key elements of this festival is that it is a colourful and festive celebration as well as an opportunity to reflect on the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. The bright face painting of skulls is a reflection of both the Aztec and Catholic belief that death is a positive thing because you are transitioning to a better place: a time of rebirth and higher consciousness. It is also a momento mori – a reminder that we all will die one day.
It is interesting that it shares its days with the Christian All Hallows Tide, the first day of which we call Halloween and which purportedly originated in Celtic pagan harvest festivals. I can’t help but wonder if this interest in the dead be they saints or sinners at this time of year is prompted by the dark nights and frequent fogs which make everything look kinda spooky. Its when we feel the nights get longer and we prefer to stay home in the warm than go out in the cold; all of which can make a person more introspective and reflective on the mortality of ourselves and those who have already died. There can often be a feeling of melancholy as the dying greenery makes way for the deadness of winter.
But I do find it a cheery thought that my dad might be hovering around checking out how I’m doing. Whilst I can’t bring myself to paint a skull on my face I think I might share a glass of whisky with him later. And I will pour out a second glass, just in case he pops by. Happy Day of The dead everybody!