And so here we are again – it’s nearly the end of October. The days are once again shorter and colder, the swimming-season is over, and the kids have gone back to school. However, the end of October, apart from the re-kindling of the winter routine, also brings with it another sought-after occasion.
We have all heard of, enjoyed and / or celebrated All Soul’s Day or Samhain, better known as Halloween, which takes place on the 31st of October and which usually brings with it costume parties, scarey pumpkin faces peeping through windows, not to mention mulled wine and candy. This event precludes a time of remembrance of dead loved ones, not to mention the fact that it goes back to pre-Christian Celtic seasonal festivities.
On the other hand, how many of you have heard about the so-called Day of the Dead, that is, the Dia de los Muertos (in Spanish)?
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday which is celebrated between 31st October and 2nd November. Although losing a loved one is a sad and sombre occasion, the Day of the Dead gives us the opportunity to celebrate and think with joy of the life our lost loved ones lived, to the good and productive things they did when alive, and to remember them and how much they loved us. It is a positive affirmation of life and an acknowledgment that death is always a part of it, and may happen at any moment. This gives us all the more reason to feast, drink, dance, and be merry.
Although it originated in Mexico, this festivity spread throughout America and has become well-known in Europe too.
The Mexican sugar scull in fact has become a very popular symbol and even a fashion icon. Sugar skulls are a type of candy which originated in Mexico and which are usually prepared for and consumed during the festivities surrounding 31st October. This symbol literally consists of a white scull adorned with colourful designs, most popularly with red roses, symbolising that even out of death, comes life and joy, and that loved ones should be remembered with happiness, and not only with sorrow.
A common way of celebrating the day of the dead is to prepare a large meal, setting the table not only for those members of the family who are alive, but also for those who have been lost. Full plates and empty chairs serve as a reminder that those we love, are never really gone, as they remain a part of our lives and memories, forever. Lit candles and / or pictures of deceased loved ones can be put in their table-spaces, too. Alternatively, small private altars with pictures, candles and flowers are set up in one’s own private home, or at a communal family gathering.
Another way of remembering those who are no longer with us is to go to the cemetery where they are buried, to clean and sweep their graves, light some candles, and say a prayer over a gift of fresh flowers. Families can also get together and socialise, while remembering and telling stories of the deceased.
In Mexico and in certain parts of America (most renowned of these was New Orleans, before the advent of Hurricane Katrina) street parties and music were also common, not to mention costume parties. In Mexican culture, it is believed that when realising how much they are still loved and cared for, the happy spirits of dead relatives or friends would bless their loved ones with wisdom, good luck and protection.
Losing a loved one, is one of the hardest things a person can go through in the course of one’s life. The Day of the Dead shows us how to perceive death differently, in that instead of focusing on loss and sorrow, we remember the good times we spent with that person, and how s/he would want us to be happy and live our life to the fullest – in that way, the dead can, in a sense, be brought back to life when we spend time keeping his / her memories alive when we get together as a family.