About the event
As with Halloween a few days before, Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) partly originates from the ‘AllHallowtide’- the three day Christian observance which includes All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Originally a time to commemorate all of christianity’s saints and martyrs, the period possibly coincides with the European pagan tradition of honouring the dead at the start of winter. Brought over by the colonial Spanish, this christian day possibly combined again with the traditions of native Aztek culture to form the festival that we see today.
The day is celebrated by families constructing altars called ‘ofrendas’ for their ancestors and deceased family members. Food, offerings and flowers are placed at the altars and visits are often made to family members' graves. Also part of the day are big family dinners, the giving of sugar skulls to friends and the distinctive ‘calaveras literarias’ - a short rhyming poem often lightly mocking friends, family or public figures.
How to approach it
This can be used as a day to broaden students' knowledge and curiosity of other cultures. You could explore pictures and films of the event that show the day’s colourful traditions in action. Fun activities might be to draw a traditional ‘calaveras’ skull or read examples of a calaveras literarias poem and work with students to write their own. During these activities ask students to think through what this day might mean to the people that celebrate it. Ask what is important about remembering our ancestors? Why might we bring them offerings? What does this symbolise?
Additionally, this day is a wonderful example of syncretism (the exchange and incorporation of different cultural traditions). There is a possible European pagan element to these celebrations, mixed with mediaeval christianity, colonial spanish and indigneous Mexican traditions. This example is a great way to introduce ideas of how fluid culture is and the amazing things that can come out of multicultural interactions. It is also a potential stimulus for discussion over colonialism and how the cultural traditions of the present reveal aspects of the historical injustices and occupations of the past.
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration that originates from the same christian holiday as halloween. How do you think Europe and Mexico have celebrations with similar themes? Is it coincidence or is there a better explanation? How do you think we can explain the differences between these two celebrations? What different cultures helped to inform the two different days?