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Dia de los Muertos or the “Day of the Dead”

Posted on 18th September 2014
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Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead Party!

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Dia de los Muertos or the “Day of the Dead” is a Mexican holiday celebrated both throughout Mexico and around the world where similar observances are made. In recent years, the popularity of this holiday has increased and spread even amongst those who are not of Mexican or Catholic decent and even to those not necessarily religious. One of the popular icons of the celebrations, the sugar skull, has become a favourite design and it can be seen today on everything from wall art, dress up costumes, party wear and even fine tableware.
 
What is the Day of the Dead and how does the sugar skull fit into the festivities? Dia de los Muertos holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The celebrations are around the same time as Halloween and as a result they are often confused as being the same, whereas in reality, Day of the Dead is far from the sombre and morbid time that its name implies.
 
In Mexico where the day is a bank holiday, the celebration takes place during over the period October 31 and the first two days of November that is Hallowtide or All Hallows' Eve, Hallowmas, and All Souls' Day. And like all major festivals several traditions are now connected with the holiday including the building of private family altars called ofrendas as well as using decorated sugar skulls and marigold flowers to honour the dead. Additionally, many families prepare the favourite foods and beverages of the departed and these are left at the gravesides of the deceased.
 
The traditional celebration of Dia de los Muertos was started well over 3,000 ago by the Aztecs who held a month long celebration of those who had died and they welcomed their spirits back to earth for a visit. During this ritual, it was common for skulls to be displayed to symbolise life, death and the rebirth. The Spanish Conquistadors attempted to rid the natives of their pagan observances and impose the Catholic faith and convert the natives their efforts were unsuccessful and over time the rituals began to coincide with the more acceptable Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.
 
During the celebrations the dead are welcomed back to their families by the construction of elaborate ofrendas or alters, or offerings. These alters are lined with items that the dead family member loved plus flowers, particularly marigolds, which are laid out for their bright colours and strong scent. Other smells such as spices, incense, and scented candles are often also used as part of the alter decoration.
 
One of the items always included within the display on the ‘ofrenda’ is the sugar skull although it’s unclear as to when and how the use of sugar skulls became popularised in the overall celebration of Dia de los Muertos. It is believed that with the sugar plantations producing enough cheap sugar that it was found to be an inexpensive substitute from which could be formed into a satisfactory substitute for real skulls. Nowadays, the skulls are made using just a few ingredients, sugar, meringue powder, and water. Pressed into a mould and allowed to dry, the mixture creates a three-dimensional white skull which is artistically decorated. Whilst sugar skulls are made more for their artistic impression than their religious significance these should still be seen as beautiful cultural artefacts and it is the image of the sugar skull that appears on a lot of decorations and other accessories used to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
 
Day of the Dead continues to change and a mixing of cultures and customs continues bringing the colour and celebration the period around Halloween and it makes a great alternative to the traditional and spookier Halloween party. In the UK there has been an awakening of interest and there are masks, costumes, party goods, decorations and make-up kits containing the required colours as well as ‘sugar skull’ decorations for your own Day of the Dead celebration and if your children think they’ll be missing out on dressing up and going trick or treating, they needn’t it’s just called "pedir muertos".
 
So for something a little different this Halloween and something with a little more colour, why not try holding a  Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” costume party?
 
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