How to celebrate Día de los Muertos respectfully

To help us celebrate Día de los Muertos respectfully, the experts at the language learning app Babbel offer a guide to understanding key aspects of the sacred holiday.

Many associate Día de los Muertos with sugar skulls, graveyard celebrations, and parades, but there is so much more to this sacred, two-day festival than just parties and decorations.

In fact, it’s so important that in 2008, UNESCO recognised Día de los Muertos as a holiday of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, to safeguard its cultural diversity and creative expression around the world.
 

What is Día de los Muertos?

Day of the Dead in a graveyard with lots of candles

Día de los Muertos translates from Spanish to English to mean "Day of the Dead". It’s a two-day holiday that is celebrated in Spanish-speaking countries, such as in Mexico and Spain, on the 1st and 2nd November.

The holiday is believed to reunite the living and the dead, as the souls of the deceased return for Día de los Muertos to celebrate with their families. Typically, November 1 is for celebrating children who died, and November 2 is when adults are commemorated.

 

Where does the festival come from?

day of the dead grave

Its ancient roots date back to the Aztecs and different Mesoamerican civilisations around 3,000 years ago, with participants in Mexico and Central America holding a month-long ritual each summer to commemorate their deceased loved ones. They were thought to have held human skulls in their hands in celebration.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they brought Catholicism and the Catholic holidays All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (on November 1 and 2, respectively). The resulting cultural composite led to the modern-day Día de Los Muertos and its early November date.

 

What does Día de los Muertos celebrate?

day of the dead

Despite the misconceptions, the purpose of Día de los Muertos is to remember and celebrate the lives of the deceased, rather than to mourn their deaths—in other words, Día de los Muertos is a celebration of life! Ancient indigenous groups like the Aztecs believed death brought new life, and that it was an important part of life’s cyclical journey.

Present-day celebrations include music, dancing and other expressions of liveliness, with laughter also playing a key role in the celebrations. During Día de los Muertos, participants focus on the positive—relatives and friends will often tell satirical poems, with the knowledge that their deceased loved ones are laughing along with them. Ultimately, Día de los Muertos reminds us that remembering the dead doesn’t have to be sad.

 

Where do these celebrations take place?

dotd

It might seem unusual at first, but celebrations of Día de los Muertos are centered around graveyards so that families can recognise the deceased by gathering near the graves of their loved ones and decorate their resting place. Families often play music and enjoy the deceased's favourite food and drinks right there in the cemetery, so they are as close as possible to those who passed away.

One of the most elaborate aspects of Día de los Muertos are the beautifully decorated altars, called ofrendas (“offerings”), which are created by families and friends of the deceased. Typically, these include photos of the dead, trinkets that belonged to them and even their favourite, traditional foods and drinks. Every altar also has objects representing the four elements: earth (flowers or food), wind (traditional paper banners), fire (candles) and water. Another common, iconic item often used to decorate the altars are sugar skulls.

 

When I think of Día de los Muertos, I think of the skull—why is that?

La Calavera Catrina

One of the symbols that is most important, and often taken out of context, is the skull. You likely see the skull or skeleton with a large, fancy hat and an upscale dress, or variations of her, everywhere.

Her name is La Calavera Catrina (or just La Catrina, for short), and she’s based on artist Jose Guadalupe Posada’s etching in 1910. She’s far more than just a friendly-looking skeleton. La Catrina was created as a satire of upper-class Mexicans who chose to emulate European culture and the French influence in upper class societies rather than their own.

 

How can I celebrate Día de los Muertos respectfully?

Understand that this is a cultural holiday and that it’s important not to appropriate this holiday or culture as you would any other. Dressing as La Catrina or painting your face to mimic a sugar skull is not respectful or culturally conscientious.

Ensure that you understand how and why Día de Los Muertos is celebrated before marking the occasion with friends or family and be mindful of those around you.
 

Read more: All you need to know about Day of the Dead

Read more: Exploring Mexico City

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