While many American celebrations of the Day of the Dead do attempt to honor Mexican traditions, a heavy multicultural influence can often be felt during such proceedings. Thus, if you truly want to experience an authentic Day of the Dead commemoration, you need to head to Mexico.
Yet before you book your travel plans, it helps to know all you can about this unique event (even if you have experienced it in the States). With that in mind, here are 10 interesting facts about the Day of the Dead:
- It isn’t simply Mexico’s version of Halloween: Even though they are both commemorated on the same day, the Day of the Dead actually has very little to do with Halloween. In fact, it was originally a summertime event. However, after the Spanish colonized Mexico, its observance was moved to October 31 to associate it with the Catholic commemoration of All Hallows’ Eve.
- It’s actually three days: Celebrations for the Day of the Dead begin on October 31. The following day is known as Dia de los Inocentes, during which the lives of deceased children are celebrated. Finally, November 2 is All Souls Day, when adults who have passed on are remembered.
- The dead are in attendance: Early Mexicans beliefs were that the dead can travel back and forth between worlds. Thus, participants believe that their dead relatives are actually present during the festivities.
- Every commemorative alter is unique (and the same): While alters are made by participants to highlight the unique personalities of their deceased family and friends, each must also include the four elements of nature: wind, water, fire and earth.
- The unofficial mascot was once a political symbol: You’ll see many depictions of a skeleton dressed in high class clothing during the Day of the Dead. This is la Calavera Catrina, and she originally was used as a symbol of class warfare during the Mexican Revolution.
- The party is literally in the graveyard: Families will decorate the graves and tombs of their loved ones, and then hold celebrations including food and music right in front of them.
- The skulls mean more than just death: Skulls feature prominently in Day of the Dead celebrations, even down to making little sugar skulls to place on alters. In pre-Hispanic times, the indigenous Mexican population viewed the skull as both a symbol of death and re-birth.
- It’s celebrated in Spain, too: While Spanish culture has heavily influenced Mexico, it has also adopted several Mexican traditions, one of which is the Day of the Dead.
- It’s meant to be both happy and sad: Humor plays a huge role in the Day of the Dead, as participants believe their deceased loved ones are laughing at their jokes along with them. At the same time, the celebration is also meant to prompt somber reflection of the lives of those who’ve passed on.
- Look out for hairless dogs: Depictions of the Xoloitzcuintli (or the Mexican hairless dog) are often featured in Day of the Dead decorations as these animals will lead the dead back to heaven after the party is over.
Experiencing Day of the Dead up close not only gives you a unique glimpse into Mexican culture, but it also may help change your own outlook on mortality for the better. To truly be immersed in all the love, laughter and longing that this holiday has to offer, you need to make celebrating it amongst the people from whom it originated a top traveling priority.