What’s this festival called and what is the translation?

Día de Muertos (also called Día de los Muertos) means the Day of the Dead. In reality it spans two days, and the real emphasis is on the Noche de Muertos (the night of the dead) when the souls of the dead are said to come for a visit.

When is it?

1st and 2nd November.

Where does Día de Muertos take place?

Mexico, and throughout Latin America – but its popularity is growing, not least because of the striking imagery of the sugar skulls and films like Coco, so it’s now common to find people holding Day of the Dead-themed parties in the US and Europe.

What happens during Día de Muertos celebrations?

Imagine if, when someone died, it wasn’t “goodbye forever”, but “see you in November”. That’s the central idea of Day of the Dead: the curtain between the worlds of the living and the dead flutter, and the dead slip through for a visit. In Michoacán, where I went to research my book, they see an arrival of butterflies shortly before the Day of the Dead. They announce that the celebration is about to come, and many people believe they are the souls returning.

How did it start?

Day of the Dead began as a monthlong Aztec festival, celebrated around what we would call June. But when the Spanish invaded, they forced it over to the dates of the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days in a colonialist attempt to pass it off as the same thing. Now, on 1st November, the souls of the angelitos come to visit, the ‘little angels’, meaning children and the unmarried (virgins, basically ––you can just see a little bit of Catholicism peeping through, there). The second night sees visits from the souls of adults. In practice, everything melds into one big celebration; families come together, and much as when living relatives come to stay, everything has to be perfect.

The sight of cemeteries

The cemeteries are an incredible sight: every grave is carpeted with marigolds, lit up by candles and watched over by families sitting up all night by the tombs, wrapped in blankets. It’s solemn in the graveyards, but it’s not a solemn occasion. Everywhere else it’s a fiesta, an overt celebration of life.

Offerings

The nucleus of the Day of the Dead is the ofrendas, the offerings for the spirits. People build altars – in their homes, in shops, and enormous ones in the town squares – often decorated with marigolds and pictures of the deceased, but the most important element is the food and drink for the spirits, who arrive hungry and thirsty (if you’d like to build one at home, check out our how-to guide). Jamie our guide in Michoacán told me:

“When we put down ofrendas, we’re inviting the dead to visit. You can invite anyone you’re thinking of. They will come. And just remembering them is to ask them to come.”

What should I expect from Día de Muertos?

In the graveyards, a stunning display of candles, marigolds and families quietly having a lovely time. Also, expect way more tourists than you’d like, many of them rather rudely clicking photos in the faces of people nodding off at 4am. And, as with anywhere beautiful and tourist-heavy these days, there will be drones.

Outside the graveyards, expect an all-night party. The zócalo (town square) will probably have a stage and huge speakers blasting out music until late. Expect lots of eating, drinking, and general merriment.

What shouldn't I expect from Día de Muertos?

An early night.

What can we learn from this festival?

When I visited Mexico to research Day of the Dead for my book, at first I found myself feeling sad. An American tourist asked if people believe the dead are really visiting, literally, and Jaime answered that they do. I was still bereaved after finding my father-in-law dead after a week the previous year, and I found myself wondering how I was supposed to get anything from the ritual of welcoming dead relatives when I couldn’t bring myself to literally believe in it.

Ghosts and spirits

Which is my way of telling you I quite spectacularly missed the point. For my fellow cynics, atheists and party-poopers, I have an important message: Day of the Dead is not only worth the trouble if you literally believe in ghosts and spirits.

Here’s the thing: when someone dies, they leave for good; and rather inconveniently, the love you have doesn’t go anywhere. You’re stuck with it, sitting inside you with no outlet – which hurts, because, as Massive Attack so astutely pointed out in their 1998 song Teardrop, “Love is a verb, love is a doing word”. And as I visited more festivals for the dead, read about death rituals and interviewed people across multiple countries and in multiple languages, I began to realise the point of it all: Day of the Dead brings the dead to life simply by giving action to the love that remains. Welcoming a dead person for a visit, pouring them a drink, leaving them a snack; it’s about giving your love something to do, someone to care for, and somewhere to go.

Your legacy will live on long after you’re gone. And although death is still seen as taboo in our society, communicating about how you’d like to be remembered  can make a difference to those around you.
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