Whereas we “celebrate” Halloween at the end of every October, the Mexicans hold off until early November to honour their Day of the Dead. Unlike the North American Halloween, the Mexican Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos or All Souls’ Day held Nov. 1 & 2) holds far greater religious and emotional significance.
More than a pagan ritual based on scary movies, candy, and jack-o-laterns, the Day of Dead is a serious event in Mexico that fuses Catholic beliefs with superstition (in a nutshell). Over the last four years in the City of Toronto, the Mexican Consulate General has sponsored the official Day of the Dead festivities at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queen’s Quay West) – along T.O.’s gorgeous waterfront provided you look south and away from the wall of condominium towers hugging the Gardiner Expressway.
The festival marks a large Mexican celebration; a unique tradition that joyfully and colourfully remembers deceased loved ones by bringing their memories to life.
Observed for centuries, the Day of the Dead can be traced back to Mesoamerican traditions and beliefs that see death as a continuation of life. Traditionally, Latin-American families celebrate the lives of ancestors and the departed by decorating altars with flowers, sugar skulls, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and ofrendas (offerings).
The ofrenda is made in order to commemorate one of the most important Mexican cultural traditions: characterized by the inclusion of a mat made up of nine different types of seeds, seeks to express the religious syncretism between the images of pre-Hispanic world and the characters and traditions of contemporary Mexico. The mats are surrounded by foods and gifts including traditional breads cherished by the dearly departed and bowls of salt placed as an offering for the wandering souls to use in order to return to heaven.
Pre-Hispanics in Mexico, such as the Aztecs, used to dedicate ofrendas to their dead to accompany them on their four year journey through the Underworld to reach one of the Aztecs’ paradises.
In addition to artworks, costumes, crafts, and delicious foods to sample, the Harbourfront Centre festival includes folkloric dancing, films, and a wide array of music from traditional to modern-day Mexican rap, beats, and turntablism. This three-day festival is a veritable fiesta for Torontonians eager to learn more about our most southern North American neighbour.
As noted on Wikipedia, observance of a Mexican-style Day of the Dead has spread to Europe as well. In Prague, Czech Republic, local citizens celebrate the Day of the Dead with masks, candles, and sugar skulls. Mexican-style Day of the Dead celebrations can also be found in Wellington, New Zealand, complete with altars celebrating the deceased with flowers and gifts.