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Why Day of the Dead offers greater meaning to me than Halloween

Why Day of the Dead offers greater meaning to me than Halloween

A Day of the Dead skeleton in Mexico City

I am fortunate to be in Mexico City at the moment and death is all around.

The Mexican Dia de Muertos festivities, otherwise known as the Day of the Dead, falls over 1-2 November (the latter being the festival’s actual date).

I’m embarrassed to admit that prior to this trip my knowledge of Dia de Muertos was lacking.

Living in London, where there is not a noticeably large Mexican community, I was aware that Day of the Dead existed and I knew it had something to do with celebrating those who have died. But that was about it.

The last few days have been an education. Day of the Dead falls over the Catholic feast days of All Saints (1 November) and – more pertinently – All Souls (2 November). And yes, it’s basically a time for people to remember those who have passed on.

As a lapsed Catholic, I probably should have known this.

Dia de Muertos chocolate skulls
Dia de Muertos chocolate skulls

During the festival, families visit cemeteries to lay flowers and candles on the graves of loved ones. People construct little altars at home with photos of the deceased.

On these altars, they often add sugar skulls, orange marigolds (the day’s symbolic flower), special ‘Pan de Muertos’ bread and food that their loved ones favored.

You see these shrines in homes, parks, hotels, shops and other public spaces.

In Mexico City’s main square, Zocola, dozens of altars have been constructed. People write messages down on cards affixed to them. The flame-orange marigolds are omnipresent across the city.

‘Death is a part of life’

In much of Western culture, we can be squeamish about death. It’s a taboo subject. Not so much in Mexico, where Day of the Dead is rich in iconography, from the skulls that appear everywhere to the ‘lady of the dead’ Catrina figure.

Children nibble at chocolate skulls from local bakeries and skeletons loom from balconies. Death is a part of life, and never more so than in the days leading up to November.

A Day of the Dead altar in a hotel lobby, Mexico City
A Day of the Dead altar in a hotel lobby, Mexico City

This year, the city hosted its first Day of the Dead parade. Surprisingly, it took place only because such a parade featured in the latest James Bond film, Spectre. So many tourists were asking about the event, the city decided it had better hold one.

Although generally embraced, not everyone is in favor; one local I spoke to questioned whether a parade commercializes what is, essentially, a remembrance of lost loved ones. Such resistance is probably futile: look at the commercialization of Easter.

Pan de Muertos - special, sweet bread for Day of the Dead
Pan de Muertos – special, sweet bread for Day of the Dead

This notion of remembering all one’s lost loved ones struck me though. Sure, we all remember the people we have lost, but the act of actually physically doing something – placing a candle next to a photo, or constructing a little shrine – seems a quietly respectful and dignified way to acknowledge their memory.

It’s like putting them center stage in your life again, if only for a couple of days.

It brings them just a little bit closer. At least, that’s how it felt as a I dined at one of the city’s best restaurants while noting, behind my chair, the ornate altar to the owner’s late father.

My dad died almost 20 years ago. I don’t even have a framed photo of him in my home. I have one buried away in a photo album: I keep meaning to try and get some more from my mum. Like most other people, the arrival of digital cameras has greatly reduced the number of photos I ever actually turn into hard copy.

‘One of the hardest parts about getting older is that we lose more and more people’

Being here and experiencing Day of the Dead for myself, I can see why people look forward to it.

We never forget about those who have died, and, in some instances, think about them frequently.

One of the harder parts of getting older is that we lose more and more people who once meant so much to us. But after due grieving, we also can’t live with them at the forefront of our mind – we have to honor the fact that our own lives continue.

But to pull those photos together once a year, to light a candle in their name, it just seems… well, so more meaningful than the festival’s gaudy predecessor, Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve), which nowadays, although fun, is little more than an excuse for fancy dress.

Day of the Dead shrines in Mexico City's Zocola square
Day of the Dead shrines in Mexico City’s Zocola square

Catholicism in Mexico has a strong grip on the country, and not always for good. It’s supported a wave of same-sex marriage protests in recent months.

However, Dia de Muertos offers a moment of reflection that has transcended religion and has been adopted by the religious and non-religious alike.

I’m sure I’m not the first tourist to fall under the spell of Mexico, and cultural appropriation is often rightly criticized.

But when one culture seems to be setting an example on how to face up to mortality and to honor those who have gone before, well, excuse me if I bring a little bit of this one tradition back home with me.


David Hudson tried to find old friends via social media
David Hudson