Things You Should Know About... Day of the Dead

There is still a commonly held view that ‘Day of the Dead’ is Mexico’s ‘Halloween,’ that everyone dresses up as skelatons, and it is truly scary, therefore unsuitable for children. 'Dia de Los Muertos' is in fact a beautiful, family friendly and spiritual event where the streets are full of families celebrating the lives of their departed in the most creative manner, by displaying the simple things they cherished in life. Here Sophie Hyde and Jenny Garibay dispel some of the myths around the famous Mexican celebration.

1. Day of the Dead is a festival to remember the lives of the departed, full of joy and spirituality (nothing scary going on here). The streets are lined with ‘altars’, tables that families bring outside their houses, where they display photos of their departed loved ones, favourite dishes and items that they cherished.


2. The Mayas believed in three deaths: when your spirit left your body, when your body was returned to mother earth (buried), when everyone who remembered you passed away.

3. In pre-Hispanic times, when 'Day of the Dead' started, there was no hell nor paradise – the route your soul was related to the kind of death you had. The celebration lasted over two months and the Aztecs dedicated most of the month of August to their goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl.

4. As part of the overarching suppression of indigenous religion, the Catholic Church exorcised Mictecacihuatl and moved the date to coincide with All Saints Day (November 1), which is also known in Mexico as Day of the Innocents as it focuses on deceased infants and children, and All Souls Day (November 2), which centers on departed adults. As such, Day of the Dead, has spread to most Catholic countries around the world and beyond.

5. The Skeletons that people dress up as are known as  ‘Catrinas’, originally called La Calavera Garbancera. The original depiction of what is now the national icon of ‘mother death’ was created sometime between 1910 and 1913 on a leaflet making fun of the Mexican upper classes who were ashamed of their indigenous origins and dressed imitating the French style while wearing lots of makeup to make his/her skin look whiter. Catrina bears a remarkable likeness to images of Carmen Romero Rubio, the second wife of Porfirio Diaz, whose turbulent presidency was one of the main targets of Posada’s biting satire and preceded the Mexican Revolution. The symbolism of the skeleton, which in indigenous traditions throughout the Americas represents the continuation of life’s cyclical turn, proved to be a potent and resonant image for Mexican cultural independence from its Eurocentric elite.

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6. Today, in Mexico, Day of the Dead is an excuse to hang out with friends and family, cooking feasts and toasting lost loved ones, a chance to catch up with those closest to you. In the altar, the four elements earth, wind, fire and water are represented (as well as possessions in remembrance of those people and delicious food and drink to tempt them back to earth for a short while to be with their family once more).

7.The Mexican orange marigold, used in the celebrations, is believed to guide spirits in their path.

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8. In 2003, UNESCO named Day of the Dead as part of Mexico’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. In every town, it has become a huge celebrations where the streets are closed and live entertainment is provided by the city authorities.


10. The Best Day of the Dead Celebrations in London

DAY OF THE DEAD @ THE VAULTS 2017 marks Wahaca’s fifth Day of the Dead celebrations. All of Wahaca’s profits from its festivals in London and £1 from every Day of the Dead feast sold, will go to charities helping those affected in the recent Mexican earthquakes.

DAY OF THE DEAD @ MEZCAL CANTINA Delicious Mexican cuisine, an authentic Altar de muertos, catrina face painting in one of London’s rare Family run mexican restaurant