Día de Muertos


As the Royal Roads community engages in Hallowe’en celebrations this week, the Diversity Action Group (DAG) invites you to reflect on the diverse ways this fall festival is observed in other cultures. 

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and a few other countries in Central America to pay tribute and remember family and friends who have died. The celebration as it exists now has taken elements from various pre-Columbian civilizations (Aztec, Maya, Totonaca and Purepecha, among others) and from the Catholic tradition brought to America by the Spanish.

Ancient Mexicans believed that when a person died, their soul could take one of four possible paths or journeys depending on the type of death. As part of the funeral rituals, the family used to adorn the graves with gifts and tools that could be useful for the soul´s journey. These objects ranged from musical instruments to arrows, but also included small sculptures made of clay or jade.

In pre-Columbian Mexico, three celebrations a year were organized to commemorate the dead. These celebrations varied according to the different ethnic groups, but one thing in common was the organization of a big banquet. After the Spanish Conquest, the celebration was made to coincide with the Catholic All Saint´s Day. Since then, the Day of the Dead has become a Catholic holiday, but it retains rich elements from the pre-Hispanic world.

Most families’ activities include visiting the graves of loved ones and adorning them with flowers, especially with marigold (or cempasuchitl, as called in Nahuatl). Families also build altars and ofrendas that include the favorite dishes and drinks of the deceased, such as tamales, pozole, mole, and a special kind of bread known as Pan de Muerto. These offerings also include candles that remain lit until the end of the celebration. The Day of the Dead is probably one of the liveliest and richest cultural traditions in Mexico.

While we now celebrate Hallowe’en in Canada by dressing up in costumes, and children trick or treating, it shares some cultural roots with the Day of the Dead. In Western European tradition, Hallowe’en grew out of the pre-Christian Celtic harvest festival when the ancient folk offered gifts of food and drink to the spirits of nature to win protection for survival through the winter, and set a place at the table for the souls of dead relations who might visit. People then also went house-to-house in costumes, maybe offering a poem in exchange for food. Hallowe’en still reflects its connection with the natural and spirit worlds in traditions like lighting the night with jack-o-lantern pumpkins. 

If we were to explore festivals in other cultures, it’s likely that we would find the deeper meaning of Día de Muertos and Hallowe’en are shared by many people around the world.

Photo: Cervantes’ Family Ofrenda. Tepeyahualco, Puebla, Mexico. 2015 by Ignacio Estrella.

Thank you to DAG members Donna Desbiens and Ignacio Estrella for co-authouring this contribution.