If you are in Spain at the end of October, you will get the opportunity to celebrate a very unique holiday with a fascinating heritage… the Day of the Dead…
‘Dia de Muertos’ is a holiday that originated in Mexico 3000 years ago when the Aztecs held annual ceremonies to honour deceased loved ones and celebrate the return of their spirits. The Spanish conquering of the Empire in the 1500s brought the Catholic element to the holiday in the form of their own celebrations – All Souls and All Saints Day. The result is a holiday with a blend of pre-Hispanic indigenous and Spanish Catholic influence that is celebrated not just in Mexico but in Hispanic countries and populations across the world.
Love and remembrance
Contrary to how it might sound, this day is a joyous celebration to honour and celebrate loved ones through ritual and remembrance.In Valencia, the day follows a typical pattern that is echoed throughout Spain. Many people create a private altar – ‘altar de muerto’ – in their own home, as it is believed that the souls of the dead return to join their families for the festivities. By celebrating with family both alive and dead, this emphasises that death must be seen simply as the next step, as opposed to something to be feared. These home altars are brightly and lavishly decorated with candles, food, drinks and fluttering tissue paper to represent the four elements.
Festivals, street parties and parades start early and last into the night, with the notes of celebration marked by the depth of passion and feeling. Families will go to the cemetery to remember and pray for their loved ones and clean the grave. Offerings are brought to create a shrine, with items such as incense, fresh fruit, flowers and candles, as well as objects that the person was fond of when they were alive, such as clothing or photos.
Skeletons and stories
A major symbol of the day in Mexico is skeletons and this tradition is echoed in Spain with the ‘Calaveras de azúcar’. These edible sugar skulls – which are symbolic of the death and the afterlife – are handed out to children as gifts or used to decorate the altars. Another traditional foodstuff, ‘Pan de muerto’or ‘bread of the dead’ is often decorated in a way to resemble bones, a dead body or skulls and eaten at the altar. It is common to stay in the graveyard late into the night – telling stories of deceased loved ones and spending time with other celebrants. Often, musicians are hired to play the favourite songs of the deceased.As part of the day’s celebrations, participants will also traditionally watch a play called ‘Don Juan Tenorio’ – a story of seduction and sin about an evil man who destroys his own life.
While the ‘Dia de Muertos’ falls on the first two days of November – with the first day honouring deceased babies and children and the second remembering deceased adults – preparations and festivities will usually start on October 31st. This is one very special time that is dearly loved by people across the world as they celebrate the lives of their lost loved ones.
Photo credit Ivan Hernández