DAy of the Dead


The Day Of The Dead Celebrations

                                                          Dia de los Muertos

The origins seem to delve into the mists of time.

There were known to have been pre-hispanic Aztec beliefs, Pagan, Celtic philosophy and even Roman rituals with very similar representations.

Skulls and offerings to the deceased, dressing up to welcome the dead ancestors for their temporary return and the Roman feast of Pomona (godess of seeds and fruits) as well as the festival of Parentalia which was directly linked to the Samhain celebrations November 1st being the start of their new year.

Samhain (sow-un) an Irish custom at the end of Summer, signified by the lighting of bonfires to summon the darker part of the year. Possibly involving human sacrifice, divination, games and other rituals; as well as making and displaying Jack o’lanterns (from various vegetables, but mainly turnips), to ward off evil spirits.

Day of the Dead

Christian religious celebrations honouring the dead have been found mentioned as early as the 6th century on 13th May. However during 9th century Pope Gregory lV changed the date to the 1st November; he considered there were far too many saints to each have a day for themselves to be revered; so he declared that November 1st would be All Saints Day.

These celebrations were known as All- hallows, All- Hallowsmas, Hallowtide so the evening before was ’All Hallowed’s Eve’ or Halloween; November 2nd became All Souls Day thus the celebrations of All Saints and Souls was begun.

During the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Martin Luther a German monk, theologian, became very radical in his writings and to make his point he produced over 95 theses leading towards the Reformation movement.

These (in Latin) he is said to have nailed to the door of  All Saints Church (k.a.Castle Church) in Wittenberg on Halloween 31st October; a place where any disputes would normally be posted from the town’s University.

A few of his theses suggested removing the existing rituals and celebration from the normal run and bringing in his new protesting ideas, whereby purchasing indulgences was ruled out. Although he advised that gazing upon old relics was a way of compensating for your indulgences.

His abhorrence of the Pope demanding money from the poor (by selling indulgences) to do building works on the great Roman Basilica became known; he continued to have reactionary thoughts throughout his life.

Eventually Luther was excommunicated and threatened with death. Some of his  theses together with world events led to the reforming of the faith and subsequently developed into the Protestant Church.

The result of this blending is an event in Mexico which holds strength for all religious aspects with Christian components as well as indigenous Native American ones. This joining of traditions has enriched the Mexican attitude regarding death where their loved ones can revisit once each year and leave their blessings and oversee that all is well.

Families visit the graves of their relatives,  they decorate the graves with flowers (particularly yellow and orange marigolds), earth, and candles and hold a picnic at the graveside.

Elaborate altars erected in cemeteries and private homes, photographs, flowers, candles, favourite foods and drink of the loved are placed allow friends and family the opportunity to reunite and celebrate with the departed.

At the family grave, descendants of the dead light a candle for each dead one, remember their names, and placing flowers or coronas (wreaths) photographs, letters, items of remembrance, food, sweets, drinks, play music, dance. Many stay to visit, eat, drink and pray while they keep a vigil during the night. All night, throughout the cemetery there is a grand family reunion of huge extended families, alive and dead, as one by one, through stories, memories and dreams, the dead return.

Since followers of the new religion did not believe in Saints, they saw no reason to celebrate the Eve of All Saints' Day. Consequently observance of the Halloween as it had been, died out throughout England.

Skeletons (especially representations of La Caterina the suave, sophisticated, exuberant female skeleton)  and skulls play a big part in the celebrations, with folk dressing up, children dressing -up, skulls being made from sugar, toys being carved from wood, and papier mache, tissue streamers and banners, effigies of crosses and skeletons and skulls are made from flower petals and tissue paper,  in bright yellows and oranges of the marigold.

Those who have little, make sure they will provide for their dead  -Water (to quench their thirst and for purification), - Salt, (to season their food also for purification), Bread (to provide basic food needs)  - Soap, Towel, Mirror, comb, and basin in which to wash,

(in order that their dead can keep clean and tidy).

The beliefs of today's Mexican are based on the complicated blended cultures of ancestors, the Aztec and Maya and Spanish invaders, layered with Catholicism.

It is only in recent years in England that the ‘tradition’ of dressing - up, trick or treating, playing games and such activities has been revived; whereas in other countries Canada, USA, the practice had continued. Many other parts of the world people honour their dead with similar celebrations; however, it does seem that these traditions have continued throughout time.


A typical graveyard scene in Mexico on the nights of ‘The Day of the Dead

A peep into Katrina Atkinson’s studio while working on ‘Day of the Dead’ body of work.

The Exhibition of Homage to Frida Kahlo and Day of the Dead Celebrations November 2011

Dia de Los Muertos altar at a school in Mexico  Photo credit  Thelmadatter



The Exhibition of Homage to Frida Kahlo and Day of the Dead Celebrations November 2011

Death being regarded as the ultimate reward, a transition of life,  natural progression, and often welcomed when life itself is continuously on a knife edge.

The annual celebration in Mexico, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) welcomes the souls of loved ones, friends, family, ancestors, who return each year on November 1 and 2 to enjoy for a few hours the pleasures they once knew in life.

The Exhibition of Homage to Frida Kahlo and Day of the Dead Celebrations November 2011

The 16th century saw Spanish Roman Catholic Priests were so keen to spread Christianity and could see the parallel between the Aztec and Christian celebrations, chose to join the celebrations together, consequently Mexican celebrations take place at beginning of November rather than commencement of Summer; thus hoping the non-Christian Aztecs festival would be transformed to a respectable  and acceptable Christian holiday.

Detail-of  La Caterina (53 inches w x 84 inches)h Rag - rug work collage and embellishments.

© 2011 Katrina Atkinson