Although “Dia de los Muertos” – the “Day of the Dead” – is somewhat reminiscent of the American festival “Halloween”, the two days of remembrance differ significantly in terms of tradition and atmosphere.
While “Halloween” nights are about terror and horror, the “Day of the Dead” in Mexico is a life-affirming celebration of colour and memories. Remembering those who are no longer with us plays a key role. However, it is mainly about demonstrating love and respect for late ancestors.
Every year in many parts of Mexico, but especially in the traditional south of the country, revellers wear colourful costumes, hold pageants and parties, sing, dance and offer gifts to the departed. In 2008, UNESCO included the “Dia de los Muertos” in its representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Although the festivities are celebrated by almost all Mexicans today, they date back several thousand years to the region’s indigenous people. In the cultures of the Aztecs, Maya and other peoples, mourning the dead was considered disrespectful. For them, death was a natural phase in the life cycle, and the deceased were symbolically kept alive in spirit and memories. During Hanal Pixán, as the Mayan festival is called, the souls of the dead are believed to return to the realm of the living temporarily.
During the celebrations, which begin on October 31st and last through to November 1st and 2nd, colourfully decorated altars can be found in houses and cemeteries. These are supposed to welcome the spirits of the deceased after a long journey in the realm of the living and are outfitted with plenty of gifts. In addition to candles and family photos, the deceased’s favourite meals are displayed – this also applies to deceased pets, for example. “Pan de muerto”, the bread of the dead, is a sweet bread decorated with bones made of dough. It is eaten at this time and also placed on the altar.
Alongside the altar and “Pan de muerto”, there are many unique features and traditions that vary from region to region. However, you will see the “Calavera Catrina” everywhere – a skeleton with an oversized women’s hat. Created by the Mexican political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada as a social critique of the Mexican imitation of European culture, it was intended to show that despite significant variations in appearance, everyone is the same, i.e. essentially “a pile of bones with clothes”. Years later, she was nicknamed “Catrina”, a derogatory slang word for the rich, and over the years, she has become the ubiquitous symbol of “Dia de los Muertos”.
But what can we learn from Mexicans and this traditional festival? Maybe that death is part of life, or that both belong to one another. So, we should accept the end of life and not overlook the beautiful moments out of fear and anxiety. Be thankful for time spent together, think about special moments now and then, and cherish those memories.
Death will come no matter what because there is not yet a “miracle cure” that will stop it. Life is finite, and maybe that’s why it’s so precious. We should value the time we have and use it wisely. Don’t postpone something until the day after tomorrow because it is always uncertain whether there will be a day after tomorrow.
In an earlier article by frowner (https://frowner.blog/achieving-meaning-oriented-goals-can-crises-also-be-opportunities/), the importance of crises as a driving force and impetus was discussed. This relates to the will to achieve personal goals and stay as motivated as possible during a rough patch. The idea behind this pain-pleasure principle is that physical or psychological pain often gives us the necessary impetus to change our thought patterns and tackle our goals with the required enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, many people push themselves to the limit before realising that they are harming their body and need to change their lifestyle. Perhaps we can learn from the lives and deaths of those who have left us by remembering their lives and reflecting on them. Which opportunities might they have missed in life? What can you learn from this and do better?
Did your uncle always want to travel but didn’t manage to do it during his lifetime? Would you like to go on holiday again and explore a new country, but work and stress are holding you back? Whether it’s unfulfilled dreams, overdue doctor’s check-ups or postponed calls to relatives and friends, don’t hesitate and postpone everything!
* Photos featured in the article: Sabrina Gölitz