What is Mexico's Day of the Dead? Why so many souvenir skulls everywhere?
As Halloween is fast approaching, many people are dressing up for Halloween parties and kids are getting ready to go around the town for trick-or-treat. The same also happens in Mexico, but there is another important date that is very close to Halloween - The Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos).
The first time I heard about the Day of the Dead was during my tour at a small village in Oaxaca, Mexico. My tour guide led me to a cemetery where people were decorating the tombstones with large candles and sugar skull heads. At first, I thought that was a little strange. Then, I was led by my tour guide again to a family house, whose family in generations specialized in making candles for the Day of the Dead.
To revisit my blog post of Oaxaca: Link
In my head, I had a lot of questions about this special day. Not to mention, whenever I go around streets, markets or gift shops, I always see some kind of merchandise associated with death, skulls and skeleton. Granted, I've even seen Mexicans show Frida Kahlo (a famous iconic Mexican painter) with a skull picture. So... what's up with Mexicans and death?
What is it?
The Day of the Dead is on November 2nd. It is a public holiday in Mexico and it is a day of remembrance. Family and friends gather together to pray and remember their loved ones who died. Friends and family clean and tidy up the graveyards and offer large candles, sugar skulls, marigolds, favourite food and beverage (often tequila) at the graves. The tidying and visiting is similar to Chinese's Qiming Festival or Tomb-sweeping day.
Why so many skulls in Mexican shops?
The Day of the Dead is developed from ancient traditions in Mesoamerica dated as far back as 2,500-3,000 years ago. The festival is dedicated to a goddess called "La Muerte", which is often associated with the modern version figure called "La Calavera Catrina".
La Calavera Catrina
La Calavera Catrina is depicted by a painter named José Guadalupe Posada in 1910s which shows a skeleton figure with an elegant European dress and a large hat. It was a mockery by Mexican natives of the upper European class that basically says "at the end, no matter if you are rich or poor, you all end up being dead." Essentially, the figure Catrina became a satire and referential image of Death in Mexico. Later on, it has become heavily associated with the Day of the Dead.
When you walk inside any souvenir shops in Mexico, you'll see many images of La Catrina.
On the other hand, the ancient folk goddess La Muerte is a personification of death. La Muerte is responsible for delivering dead souls safely to the afterlife. Similar to Catrina, La Muerte is a skeleton dressed in a long rope.
Watch "The Book of Life"
A recent animated movie released in 2014 called "The Book of Life" explained The Day of the Dead through a fun and emotional story. Thanks to my friend's suggestion, Isabella, The Book of Life depicts death in a very light and heart-warming way. In this movie, there are two types of afterworlds: The Land of Remembered and the Land of Forgotten. La Muerte rules The Land of Remembered and Xibalba rules The Land of Forgotten. If family and friends continually visit the graves of loved ones and remember them, then the souls will live in the Land of Remembered. Once they have been forgotten, then the souls will be demoted to the Land of Forgotten.
I highly suggest you to watch this movie. It is extremely impressive.
People often times mix up "La Muerte" and "Catrina". They are completely different but people associate them as one.
Is death something to be made fun of?
So why do Mexicans seem to make fun of death? Since death is an inevitable nature that happens to everyone, Mexicans treat death very lightly and make a festival out of it. To Mexicans, the dead should not be mourned with sadness. The skeletons and skulls are are playful symbols of life after death. Often times, there are short poems called "calaveras" being used to mock friends with death.
In pop culture, many people put on the "calaveras" make-up on the Day of the Dead.
Clearly, The Day of the Dead is a serious day to remember the decesased. However, Mexicans love to mock death and make satire jokes with skulls and skeletons. Clearly, this is a completely different tradition with the Chinese culture, where death is not a joke. In Chinese culture, saying death is almost like a curse and sometimes being treated as a taboo because it brings bad luck.
Anyway, happy Day of the Dead!