On 1st November, a rather extraordinary and colourful celebration takes place. The Mexican Day Of The Dead is not only observed in its native country, it is also celebrated in other parts of the world. What is The Day of the Dead, and where did this unique custom come from?
In Spanish, the native language of Mexico, the Day of the Dead is directly translated from ‘el Dia de los Muertos’. It is recognised as a national holiday, when banks and other commercial services close. In many ways, the Day of the Dead is like some other Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter, in that it has an older history that has been tied to a contemporary religion. In this case, the Day of the Dead is connected to the All Saint’s Day festival of 2nd November.
The origins of the el Dia de los Muertos dates back thousands of years, perhaps even 3,000 years. It is the celebration of ancestors and forebears. The Aztec’s belief system was strongly bound up in the rituals of death and rebirth, and it was essential to pay tribute to those that had gone before, who might be reincarnated. Back before the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, it would be commonplace for actual skulls of ancestors to be kept for display. They would be used in these symbolic ceremonies of passing and rebirth.
What’s The Difference Between Halloween and the Day of the Dead?
There are other similarities with the celebrations of European cultures. The Day of the Dead starts midnight, October 31st. The parallels between this festival and Halloween seem to be obvious, but how much of a connection is there? True, there are the sinister trappings of skulls, which are a recurring motifs spread throughout towns and cities on this date. It is closely bound to the beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife, but that’s where the parallels end.
The Day of the Dead is very much about family, of loved ones that are missed but would be welcome if they returned. Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, is about avoiding the creatures of the night, to stay free of the influences that tread upon our Earth for one night, while the veil between worlds is lifted. This is the basis behind the original Celtic legends. The dead are not welcome to walk among us with Halloween, and we dress as their kind to confuse them, so they cannot possess our bodies.
The Day of the Dead appears to share the same trappings as Halloween, with dressing up, partying and sweets and candies in the shapes of skulls and skeletons. They could not, at their heart, be more different.
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