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Day of the Dead, the Mexican Fiesta for the Departed

Party with the Dead on Mexico's Answer to Halloween and Master Their Vocabulary

The Day of the Dead defines Mexico more than any other event in its calendar.

Photo credit: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble licensed cc by 2.0

HomeBlogDay of the Dead, the Mexican Fiesta for the Departed

Ever since the dawn of civilization, death has been feared, revered, and celebrated like no other life event known to mankind. Almost every culture in existence has a tradition of worshipping death in one way or another. The Chinese have their Teng Chieh, the English their All Saints’ Day, The Japanese their Matsuri, the Koreans their Chusok, the Swedish their Alla Helgons Dag, the Germans their Walpurgisnacht, and the Mexicans their Día de los Muertos, i.e. the Day of the Dead. And this isn’t even scratching the surface because, like I said, every culture has its own way of honouring their dead.

The dates may differ, as may they customs, but an ode to the dead is integral to most cultures around the globe. What sets Mexico’s Day of the Dead apart from the rest, however, is the attention it enjoys. Take Walpurgisnacht, for instance. It’s big, no doubt, but it doesn’t define Germany. Christmas and even Easter still trumps it in that country by a wide margin when it comes to significance and scale. The Day of the Dead, on the other hand, pretty much identifies Mexico. It’s far bigger than any other celebration in Mexico in all aspects. And that’s why no study of the Mexican way of life is even close to complete without a spotlight on this celebration.

Day of the Dead: A Brief History

The idea of celebrating the dead is not new to Mexico. The Day of the Dead tradition goes back at least 3,000 years if not more and the Aztecs were already performing complex rituals to mark the day when the Europeans were still centuries behind their first Christmas. But believe it or not, Day of the Dead has not always been the unifying symbol of Mexican culture it has become today. The holiday was rather unknown to the northern part of the country until as recently as the twentieth century!

The festival is originally an Aztec thing. They observed it during the ninth month of their calendar which roughly corresponds to our August. Back in the day, the fiesta was way more than the one-day affair it is today and ran an entire month. The Aztecs worshipped a certain goddess Mictecacihuatl, during these festival. Now this Mictecacihuatl was an interesting deity who ruled Mictlan, the Aztec underworld. She was the queen of death, afterlife, and everything ghoulish along the way. They say she was sacrificed as an infant which is why she appeared as a spooky skeletal figure with jaws wide open to swallow the stars during the day. Ever heard of anything more metal than this?

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century, they liked the idea of celebrating the dead and decided to appropriate it as a Catholic tradition. Since they were already doing their own thing with the dead back home in the form of an All Saints’ Day, it made sense to move the dates of the new Aztec festival to coincide with its European counterpart. And that’s how Day of the Dead went from being a summer tradition to being the Mexican Halloween on the first day of November.

Day of the Dead Traditions

By the way, it’s actually just Día de Muertos and not Día de los Muertos in Mexico just so you know. With that tiny bit of detail out of the way, let’s explore the rich tradition of this curious Mexican festival. Unsurprisingly the traditions around this event are not as homogenous as you might expect. Every region has its own twist on the rituals and they can be as diverse as those of Christmas! The rituals can change from one village to another and do so drastically at times.

Xantolo

The lead-up to the big day begins as early as September 29. At least in the Huasteca region of Hidalgo. Huasteca is a region in the north-eastern part of Mexico and includes parts of Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Veracruz and Hidalgo. Here, the day is marked by a series of rituals collectively known by its Nahuatl name, Xantolo. Xantolo also marks the end of the wet-season farming and its preparations begin a week in advance. This day also sees the festival of San Miguel (St. Michael). San Pedro (St. Peter), who guards the Pearly Gates, is said to throw the gates of Heaven open on this day for the departed souls to leave freely. The souls, thus, return to the land of the mortals to receive their offerings of tamales and coffee!

Carnivals, altars, graveyard picnics, overnight vigils, and Mexican marigolds mark the period. This is the time, cemeteries throughout the region start taking up a bright new character and seeing a lot of fun and festive activities. The altars built during the festival have four poles, one at each corner, representing the four stages of life. These poles converge at the center forming arches and are adorned with branches of local plants and the quintessential marigolds. The altars are decked with fruits, copal incense, and candles to attract the dead.

San Lucas Day

This one falls on October 18 and happens to be the day the second offerings are made. Locals harvest unripe bananas on this day so that they ripen by the end of the month, in time for the big day, the Day of the Dead. This is also the day they make paper flowers for their altars and ground cacao beans to make chocolate for the offerings. People also clean up and paint their homes in fresh colors because, come on, the spirits aren’t gonna visit an untidy den!

The Day of the Dead

The big day falls on the first day of November and marks the beginning of the end of the month-long shindig. Private altars appear on every grave the day before and families do the best they can to make them inviting to their dead relatives. The dead relatives’ memorabilia, such as favorite foods and drinks, deck the altar. They also place pictures of the dead on their respective altars and spend the night telling stories and anecdotes of the departed. As offerings, los angelitos (little angels or dead children) get toys while dead adults get tequila, pulque, and jars of atole. The atmosphere is anything but grim.

In places like Janitzio, Pátzcuaro, and Mixquic, graveyard vigils are commonplace. And there’s nothing macabre about this. Some families even set up altars or ofrendas, right in their homes. Sugar skulls, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), candied pumpkins, and trinkets feature heavily. They leave these offerings out in their homes for the spirits to consume. Since the trip from their world to ours is long and tiring, the souls need some good rest on this day. To that end, people also leave out blankets and pillows with the offerings. How sweet!

Some people wear shells on their clothing during the vigils so that when they dance, the noise of the shells would wake up the dead. Others could go further and even dress up as their dead relatives! During the event, you will find generic ofrendas even in schools and government offices. It really is as fun as it sounds. Oh and don’t forget the cross and images of Virgin Mary. They are a staple to every altar.

Death never looked more beautiful than the Elegant Catrina. Death never looked more beautiful than the Elegant Catrina.
El mundo de Laura licensed cc by 2.0

Calaveras and Catrinas

The word literally means skullCalaveras are as integral to the Day of the Dead as the Day of the Dead is to Mexico. The name applies to many things in the context of this festival. The most common application of all is a decorative skull made of either sugar or clay. The clay one is obviously for decorative purposes whereas the sugar one, also known as alfeñiques is a popular treat for kids. These also feature heavily on the Day of the Dead altars, especially those of children.

Since everything about the Day of the Dead is fun, calacas are also joyous rather than grim. We ought to credit the Aztecs for this because they strongly believed in celebrating death.

Calavera also refers to any artistic representation of human skulls either for satirical purposes or otherwise. Then there’s also poetry written for the dead, to be read during the Day of the Dead, not different from a eulogy. These poems are also called calavera or, more accurately, literary calavera. Often, these poems are meant to satirically remind their subjects of their mortality as a form of criticism. This practice goes back to the eighteenth century when a newspaper first published a poem depicting a graveyard of an imagined future when everybody in the world is dead.

Another closely related application of calavera involves a female skeletal figure that goes by the name of Catrina. This one goes back to José Guadalupe Posada who first published a painting of a beautifully dressed female skeleton called La Calavera Catrina (The Elegant Skull). This painting was a satirical attack on the Mexican upper-class women and their vanity. Today, representations of this figure, Catrinas, have become a staple of every Day of the Dead carnival in all parts of Mexico.

Calacas

Sometimes these skeletal figures are also called calacas, a traditional Mexican term for skeleton. Calacas are slightly different from Catrinas in that they serve no satirical purpose and solely represent death in a cultural context. This tradition goes back to the Mayans (not the Aztecs this time) and are heavily decked in marigold flowers. Since everything about the Day of the Dead is fun, calacas are also joyous rather than grim. We ought to credit the Aztecs for this because they strongly believed in celebrating death. They were of the belief that the dead don’t like to be remembered with sadness. Even dead Mexicans live to party!

Calacas could take many forms from figures to candies and from masks to paintings. Calaca masks can be made from wood or even fire clay. Being a Mayan thing originally, calacas are also big in Guatemala where the connotations are far from joyful. There, the figure of a skeleton is seen as the Grim Reaper himself and that’s a scary thing to them. Here’s a popular expression among the Mexicans and Guatemalans involving calacas:

Se lo llevó la calaca (Death took him away).

As you can figure out, they commonly say this when someone they know or love has just died. Instead of just saying “he died” they go with a more morbid “the calaca took him away.” Does that spook you out a little? It sure does sound interesting though.

Other Traditions

The Day of the Dead is as diverse in traditions as the people of Mexico. And that means a lot. Take, for example, Michoacán. It’s a state in Mexico and in this state is a lake called Lago de Pátzcuaro. On this lake stands the town of Pátzcuaro which has its own take on the Day of the Dead traditions. Here, if a family has recently lost a child, the following November 1 is dedicated to that child. The event is presided over by the deceased’s godparents. and involves praying to the Virgin to protect the child’s soul. The town’s plaza witnesses a lot of dancing in colourful costumes and calaca masks

The midnight of November 2 witnesses a curious ritual in Pátzcuaro. The lake has an island right in the middle and on that island is a cemetery. A big celebration takes place in that cemetery and people holding candles ride winged boats called mariposas (butterflies) to get to the island. These mariposas are a treat in and of themselves to watch.

In the state of Morelos, lies the town of Ocotepec. If you’re visiting this town during this time, make sure you carry some veladores (small wax candles). That’s because if you offer them to the residents, you get treated to tamales and atole in exchange. This exchange only happens in households where someone has recently died.

Hanal Pixan

While Day of the Dead is largely credited to the Aztecs of the north, the Mayans of the south also have their own way of honoring the dead. Their version goes by the name of Hanal Pixan and is just as exotic as its northern counterpart. Hanal Pixan, which is Mayan for food for souls, is particularly big in the Yucatan peninsula, the Mayan stronghold of Mexico. The name should tell you that food forms the central theme of this entire event. And that’s true because to the Mayans, nothing attracts the departed as strongly as a droolworthy assortment of traditional dishes.

Just as their northern friends, the Yucatecos (the Mayans of the Yucatan), put out altars, both at home as well as in the cemeteries for their departed loved ones. And just as it happens up north, the spirits of the children arrive October 31 while those of the adults visit the following day. The third day, i.e. November 2, is when they all leave the mortal world, only to return the next year. The three-day event is almost exactly similar in character to the Day of the Dead.

The dish that takes the spotlight during Hanal Pixal is muchbipollo, a composite of Mayan muc (buried), Mayan bi (baked), and Spanish pollo (chicken). It’s similar to tamale but significantly larger. Traditionally cooked in a subterranean oven called pib, muchbipollos come wrapped in banana leaves. Traditionally, a platter of this dish is also put out for the lonely souls, souls with no one to mourn.

Día de San Andrés

November 2 officially marks the second and the last day of the Day of the Dead. But that’s not the end of it all. That is on November 30, the day of St. Andrews. This is the day the third and final offering of tamales is made. Remember the arches we talked about earlier? Well, they are all dismantled on this day and the dried flowers are carefully stored. These would be scattered over the furrows the following year. This day marks the day the souls depart for their heavenly abode so the living must arrange for a grand farewell. People gather at the cemeteries in the morning with the tamales to bid their dead the final adieu. As you can imagine, the atmosphere this time is quite emotional and tears are common.

The dishes on offer for the dead include not just tamales but also mole, hot chocolate, pan de muerto, etc. And there’s not just a single kind of tamale either. There’s tapataxtli, there’s tlapepecholi, and there’s also tlaixpiktle. And they’re always served with pickle on the side. Many people also believe possessing Day of the Dead items bring good luck and fortune.

The Day of the Dead Vocabulary

The best way to soak in the Day of the Dead is, of course, to visit a Mexican cemetery and witness the goings-on first hand. But short of that, the least you could do it acquire the vocabulary to feel more at home with the culture. Learning the words will not help you experience the festival by itself. But it will certainly help you explore the culture better by reading about the traditions in Spanish. As always, we will try to make the job easier using shortcuts like etymology and word associations. Because memorizing new words should not eat up all your time!

Kids, both live as well as dead, dig skull candies. Kids, both live as well as dead, dig skull candies.
Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs licensed cc by-sa 2.0

1. Alfeñique

Alfeñique is a generic term for any candy made out of sugar. In the context of Day of the Dead, the reference narrows down to candy skulls, i.e. calaveras. The word comes from Arabic al-fānīd and goes further back to Sanskrit! It even has an English cognate, albeit lesser known, alphenic. The areas most associated with this confection are Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and Toluca. Alfeñiques came to Mexico with the Spaniards who introduced this candy as a Catholic replacement for the traditional amaranth figures in use by the Aztecs for their altars. Although they come in all imaginable shapes and forms, the most common of all remains the calavera which is a Day of the Dead staple. If you can read Spanish, there’s an excellent article where you can learn more about Toluca’s obsession with these candies.

Memorizing a word of Arabic origin like alfeñique can be tricky business because etymology is of no use here. And that’s why we have to get creative. Imagine a kid named Alfred who has a friend named Nick. And both are crazy about sugar candies. Alfred and Nick. Alfeñique. Easy? Alternatively, you could conjure up a candy-loving elf who goes by the name Nick. Elf Nick loves alfeñique. That should do it.

2. Angelito

Angels are good folks. Loved by the gods, pure at heart, and paragons of innocence. Do you know who else shares these traits with them? The children, of course! But children are smaller, so they’re called little angels. And since Spanish for angel is angelo, little angel becomes angelito. The suffix -ito here is what linguists call a diminutive. In Spanish, diminutives have the effect of making their root smaller or cuter. That’s how chico becomes chiquito, Ana becomes Anita, Juan becomes Juanito, and poco becomes poquito. Kids love diminutives, as do the Mexicans. Mexicans use these suffixes disproportionately more than their Spanish-speaking counterparts elsewhere. Given the similarity between angel and angelo, I doubt you need any special props to remember angelito.

3. Atole

Atole comes from Classical Nahuatl ātōlli and goes by atol in Cuba, El Salavador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The fact that it goes by any name in that many country should tell you that the thing is super popular. Atole is an indigenous beverage originally from Mexico. It’s made from cornmeal and can come as either a thick drink or a more fluid gruel. A chocolate-based version also exists and is called champurrado. Atole typically accompanies tamales and is quite a staple during Christmas season.

The dead seem to have quite a palate for this drink too, since it finds a spot on almost every altar during the Day of the Dead celebrations. The Nicaraguans love their atole too but they call it pinolillo instead. So how do you remember the name? Easy, just imagine a tall glass of delicious atole and you’ll have it down. They say, drinking it works better than imagining it though.

4. Calaca

We have already discussed calaca enough in a section above. But the thing is just too fascinating to give up on. The word is colloquial Mexican for calavera, the more standard Spanish for skull. Guatemalans and Mexicans also use calaca as a metaphor for death itself, similar to our Grim Reaper.

I don’t know exactly where the word comes from but it doesn’t seem to have a cognate in English for sure. That makes it a tough one to commit to memory. How about a colorful carcass? I know that’s not a very appealing image but trust me, it works. Carcass because the skull would only show if it’s like half decomposed. Imagine someone painted the skull of that carcass with a ton of vibrant colors. What crazy person would do that? But a colorful carcass should easily lead you to its calaca.

5. Calavera

Calavera is also something we have discussed at length above. But then, it’s never quite enough, is it? These come in forms ranging from confections (sugar-candy skulls) to toys (clay skulls) and from poetry (skull-themed eulogies) to art (skull-themed parodic caricatures). The Mexicans’ obsession with skulls is best seen during the Day of the Dead festival. Dances and parades with calavera masks are commonplace, as are colorful skull-shaped candies.

The word itself comes from Latin calvāria which also means skull. If calvāria doesn’t sound familiar to you, go read the Bible. The New Testament, I mean. Remember the part where Jesus was crucified? The site, which is just outside Jerusalem, is called Golgotha or Calvary and is where all crucifixions used to be done back in the day. Why do you think it’s also called the place of the skull? Lot of crucifixions means lot of dead men. And lot of dead men means a lot of skulls. That’s how Calvary gets its name. This should help you remember calavera.

6. Candelero

Candles are integral to the nightlong vigils during the Day of the Dead festivities. And if there’s candles, there’s also candlesticks to hold them in. Candle is vela in Spanish. But it’s also candela, although this one is not as common as vela these days. Candela also refers to flame but again, a more common term is llama. Given the rhyme between candela and candle, memorizing the word should be a no-brainer.

The -ero part in candelero is a common suffix Spanish uses to indicate ownership or residence. For example, vaca is cow; so the dude who owns one is vaquero, a cowboy. Similarly, we get llavero (keychain) from llave (key) and florero (flower vase) from flor (flower). So, candelero is where a candela lives, i.e. a candlestick.

7. Careta

Careta derives from cara, Spanish for face. Think of careta as what goes on a cara, i.e. a mask. As for cara, the etymology is not much help since the word comes from Greek with no English cognate. So picture a beautiful actress who must always look beautiful to stay competitive. So what does she do to that end? Regularly take care of her face and ensure there’s no blemishes or wrinkles. She must care for her cara. Sexist as it may be, the idea works and now you’ll never forget cara.

Caretas, especially those that look like demons, are a staple at the Day of the Dead dance that comes at the end of the poetry session at the graveyard. These demon caretas must be worn during the dance to fool the spirits from recognizing you because if they did, they might take you with them when they leave. Not a very pleasant invitation, is it?

8. Cempasúchil

This one’s got to be the single hardest word to memorize and pronounce in all of Spanish. Not that you need it outside of Mexico, but it’s exotic enough to make learning it worthwhile. The word is not even Spanish in origin. It comes from Classical Nahuatl cempōhualxōchitl which itself is a compound of cempōhualli (twenty) and xōchitl (flower). Twenty flowers. Find me something more exotic, I dare you. Non-Mexicans know this flower as maravillosa, Spanish for marigold. Cempasúchil is Mexican marigold. And the flower literally symbolizes death in the country, thanks to the Aztecs. Because of this association, it’s also often known as flor de muertos (flower of the dead).

So, how do you tame this devil of a word? Let’s try something wacky since it’s a wacky word. Remember Simba, the lion, from The Lion King? Imagine Simba is visiting Mexico. Since the Mexican countryside is full of cactuses and thorny nopals, Simba must wear some kind of shoes to protect his paws. And since he is in Mexico, he has developed a palate for spicy foods, especially chili! Also since he is in Mexico, he enjoys wearing a marigold garland around his neck. He does have a cute sense of fashion, you see. So there you have a Simba, wearing shoes, eating chili, with a string of marigold around his neck. Simba. Shoes. Chili. Cempasúchil. See what happened there?

9. Comparsa

Comparsa is Spanish for troupe. A group of people dressed identically as if in a band. In the context of Day of the Dead, comparsa is particularly a very interesting carnival that takes place in Oaxaca. Like any carnival, comparsas involve a lot of dancing, music, and bright costumes. Several big and small comparsas are held in different parts of Oaxaca and vibrant costumes underscore each one of them. The biggest of all takes place on the night of November 1 in a place called Etla in Oaxaca.

Since there’s so many carnivals happening at the same time, and since you can’t visit all of them, it’s important to pick the best one to participate in. So you compare the various coparsas to pick the one for yourself. Does that help you remember the word?

10. Copal

Copal comes from Classical Nahuatl copalli (incense) and is the name of a particular group of tropical trees and their resinous extract that Mexicans use in making incense. The practice has been followed since the days of the Aztecs and still remains popular till date. Copal smoke is said to be a favorite of the dead. And that is why copal incense is a very important part of the typical Day of the Dead altar.

Since it’s a common name, copal is copal in both English as well as Spanish. All you have to remember is the association of copal with incense, since that’s all they use it for. To do that, think of a couple sitting at a Day of the Dead altar of their dead kid with an incense burning next to them. I know, the image is super-grim but couple with copal still makes for a quick and easy memory hook.

11. Fieles Difuntos

Fiel is Spanish for faithful and comes from Latin fidēlis. Fidēlis also exists in English as fidelity and that should help you remember fiel. A very common panic name derived from this Latin root is Fidel and I am sure you have no trouble recognizing that name. So if you have any friend named Fidel, feel free to trust him blindly. Just kidding.

Difunto is cognates with defunct which means not functional or dead. That was a no-brainer, wasn’t it? Now that you know the words individually, let’s bring them together. Fieles Difuntos literally translates as the faithful dead and is the name of a very specific thing. It’s the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day. In the Catholic tradition, November 1 is the feast of All Saints or Todos los Santos and the following day is All Souls or Fieles Difuntos.

12. Golletes

The dead love tamales and atole. But what we non-Mexicans don’t know is that they also love golletes. These are a very Mexican thing, rarely known outside of the country which explains our ignorance. Golletes are donut-shaped pieces of bread glazed with pink sugar which somehow symbolizes the cycle of life and death. Not that most Mexicans care about the symbolism when they’re busy stuffing a bunch of these in their mouth. I wouldn’t either. But it’s fascinating nonetheless.

Those who have tried it describe the taste as very sweet, slightly tart, fruity, and a tad like pastry. Some say it smells like strawberry while others liken it to Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries cereal. The jury is still out as I haven’t tried it personally yet. If you have, I would love to know what you think!

13. Máscara

We have already discussed careta, Spanish for mask. However, that’s not the word you’re going to hear a lot in the streets. That one has to be máscara. You can already hear a mask in máscara so you don’t even have to memorize the word. How convenient. And no, this word has nothing to do with the mascara you put on your eyelashes in order to look like a Greta Garbo. The accent mark is important. Very important!

Some Day of the Dead altars can span as much as an entire room! Some Day of the Dead altars can span as much as an entire room!
Ray Bouknight licensed cc by 2.0

14. Ofrenda

Ofrenda sounds a lot like offering and that’s not inconsequential. The word derives from the verb ofrecer, meaning to offer. Ofrenda also corresponds to another verb, ofrendar, meaning to offer as gift or to sacrifice. In the context of  Day of the Dead, ofrendas refer to the altars we talked about earlier. It’s not so much the altar as the stuff on that altar that the word refers to. The candles, the rosaries, the memorabilia, the food, the beverages, etc. Everything on offer for the spirits is collectively an ofrenda. These altars are so elaborate and rich that a discussion of them alone would warrant an entire article.

15. Pan de Muerto

Bread of the dead. Don’t spook out at the name. The name of the bread rightly implies that the dead love them. And one bite and I’m sure you would too. Once the dead have left, you help yourself to them typically along with hot chocolate or coffee. The only thing standard about this bread is the name. Everything else is variable. The texture, the recipe, and the taste can all vary from one region to another. Some people make them with egg yolks and call them pan de yema. Others make them in wacky shapes, sometimes even in the likeness of bones! In order to memorize pan, just picture a slice of bread sitting in a pan and you’ll be fine.

16. Papel Picado

Papel is Spanish for paper and picado is something that has been spoiled. However, papel picado is anything but spoiled. You take a sheet of tissue paper and cut various intricate patterns into it and although you have spoiled the original sheet, you have made yourself a beautiful papel picado! These are extremely ubiquitous in Mexico, even more so during the Day of the Dead season. Papel picado comes in many colors and the patterns are as diverse as human imagination. They are strung up in large numbers across the streets, around churchyards, and even across the ceiling at home like colorful banners or streamers. The tradition dates back centuries and has been going strong despite the changing times in Mexico.

17. Tapete de Arena

Tapete sounds like and means tapestry. And arena is what filled those Roman arenas, i.e. sand. So tapete de arena is essentially sand tapestry and are a common sight during the Day of the Dead festivities. To describe them better, sand tapestries are images made on a flat surface using colored sand. They usually depict skeletons (of course) and other death-related ideas. These are particularly common in Oaxaca where you can find them everywhere from the streets to inside homes and lobbies of commercial buildings.

Other than Day of the Dead, sand tapestries are also a key aspect of Oaxacan funerals. After any funeral in this state, a sand tapestry depicting the deceased person’s life or their favorite saint is made at their family home. This tapete de arena stays on for nine days at the end of which the family sweeps up the sand and carries it to the local cemetery for a special ritual.

18. Todos los Santos

The first day of the Day of the Dead, i.e. November 1, is also the All Saints’ Day. That’s Todos Santos for you. Todos is all and santos is saints. You see, the Day of the Dead is actually spread across three days from November 1 through November 3. The first day is for the angelitos, i.e. dead children. The second day is for dead adults. And the third day is the final goodbye to all of them.

Kids need special treatment, even the Aztecs knew this! This first day when you invite the ghosts of the children is what’s referred to in the Catholic world as All Saints’ Day or Día de Todos los Santos. What’s the saint connection? Well, a saint is someone who is completely sin-free or unsullied by the evil. And since dead babies and children are said to have died before they could be corrupted, they’re treated as saints.

19. Vela

Vela is the more popular synonym of candela, Spanish for candle. To memorize the word, imagine a haunted house. As you walk through its hallway, you encounter a woman in a white veil holding a candle. Spooky, right? But the veiled woman with the vela will help you remember the word forever!

As we already discussed, no Day of the Dead ofrenda is ever complete without the velas. They are also a staple during the night-long vigils. So much so that even in other contexts, candlelight now evokes some kind of a vigil. And Mexico does it best, especially during the Day of the Dead.

Concluding Thoughts

That brings us to the end of a very long discussion on the Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead. But it would be dishonest to claim that we have covered everything. That’s impossible. Look around on the Internet and talk to your Mexican friends. You’ll be surprised by how much there’s to learn about this fascinating aspect of their culture. No single article can ever do justice to the richness of the traditions around this festival. The Mexicans worship their dead in a way hard for any other culture anywhere to parallel.

Is there anything you feel strongly about that I might have left out? There are a thousand areas in Mexico and a thousand different ways of celebrating the Day of the Day. Do you know of any particular tradition that we should hear about? Even better, have you ever participated in any such event either in Mexico or in a Mexican neighbourhood in your country? I can’t say how eager I am to hear all about your experiences. please drop in a note in the comment section below and indulge us in the richness of this heritage.

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