Day of the Dead Takes on the World

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Thu, November 2nd, 2023

The typically ornate decorations of a Day of the Dead altar. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The day after Halloween, and the day after that, is Day of the Dead, and the ancient festival, to use a modern word, is trending.

As the site Trendhunter points out, common now are Day of the Dead-themed weddings, tattoos, skate shoes, booze bottles, watches, candles, biker gear, toys, and, of course, jewelry. Target, Wal-Mart, and other big retailers now sell Day of the Dead-themed masks, paper plates, and candle holders. Party City has Day of the Dead earrings and necklaces, and people can purchase Day of the Dead bed covers on Etsy. In recent years, the Day of the Dead has been promoted at even fancier venues. In 2019, Vogue Mexico staged its first Day of the Dead gala at Mexico City’s Museum of Popular Art. The gala has become an annual event, and the 2022 gala included 350 guests and was held at the Numismatic Museum, which occupies a nearly 500-year-old former mint in the heart of Mexico City.

One event that helped push the festival into the cultural norm occurred in 2015 when it was depicted in the James Bond film “Spectre,” which featured a fictitious Día de Muertos parade in Mexico City. The scene inspired local officials to start an actual parade, which has become a major tourist draw. Last year, the local government reported Día de Muertos celebrations attracted about 400,000 tourists and generated $200 million.

And yet, there is something else happening here. Many people believe the commercialization of Day of the Dead and all of the buzz has gone a bit too far. At the Vogue event, for example, the classic Day of the Dead altars were devoid of the typical images of the names and photographs of recently deceased family members. Instead, “they were heavy with branding,” the New York Times reported, “including sugar skulls stamped with ‘Vogue’ on the foreheads.” And the sponsors of the event—names like Patrón and Cadillac—could be spotted around the party. These are not the only high-end companies that have recognized the marketing potential of Day of the Dead. Well-known brands, including Adidas, Lacoste, and Jean Paul Gaultier have also incorporated Day of the Dead into their advertising and collections. Several years ago, a $75 Barbie Día de los Muertos doll with blue-black braids, a black mermaid dress, and the skull makeup and marigolds associated with the tradition debuted and then promptly sold out online. PBS reported that some Mexican Americans had mixed responses to the doll.

“Day of the Dead effectively has become rolled up into the Halloween retail juggernaut,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “unsettling some observers who see it as cultural appropriation that turns the centuries-old Day of the Dead remembrances into crass commercialism.”

Other people in Mexico and other parts of Latin America have reacted to the commercialization of Day of the Dead, too. And whatever you do, don’t confuse it with Halloween! “Halloween, or Hallowe’en, or going back even further to Old English, All Hallows’ Eve, is a day which has dark, almost sinister overtones,” one Mexican website explains. “It’s associated with mischief and malevolence, focusing on the darker side of spirituality. In contrast, Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a vibrant festival of color and joy.” Schools, says PBS, should teach students how to be culturally sensitive and discover their own ancestral traditions related to death, and also “appreciate the holiday for its uniqueness and clarify the common misconception that it is simply Mexican Halloween.”

One of the most absurd Day of the Dead appropriation moments occurred ten years ago. In 2013, Disney was planning a movie on the topic and actually tried to trademark the name Dia de los Muertos. A massive petition appeared on the site to block Disney from branding the cherished ancient holiday. The petition accused the media conglomerate of cultural insensitivity. “Our spiritual traditions are for everyone, not for companies like Walt Disney to trademark and exploit,” wrote Grace Sesma, the petition’s creator. “I am deeply offended and dismayed that a family-oriented company like Walt Disney would seek to own the rights to something that is the rightful heritage of the people of Mexico,” added Consuelo Alba of Watsonville, California. “This is a sacred tradition. It’s NOT FOR SALE.”

As a result of the backlash, the Disney movie, the Cultural Detective Blog explains, was re-titled to “Coco.” In an interesting turn of events, one of the most spirited activists to oppose Disney’s trademark application, the cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, was hired by the company to work on the film. In the end, Coco was regarded as a very fair and appropriate cultural representation. The film was both a critical and commercial success, grossing more than $800 million and going on to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and numerous other awards.

Just what, then, is the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, and what is the holiday’s true history?

The holiday is “a celebration about honoring and keeping alive the memory of your loved ones and believing that…even though you’re alive, that realm opens up and you’re together on the Day of the Dead,” Deisy Marquez, founder of an event in Los Angeles called Día y Noche de los Muertos, told NBC.

Día de los Muertos originated in Mexico, explains NBC’s lengthy history of the holiday: “It then became a mix of the Aztec festival in honor of goddess Mictecacihuatl, the ‘Lady of the Dead’ who watches over the bones of the dead. The Aztecs would help the deceased on their journey to the afterlife, offering useful objects to guide them and placing them on their burial sites. This would later be known as ofrendas, or offerings, that are placed on the altars or shrines dedicated to the dearly departed.”

“The Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is an ever-evolving holiday that traces its earliest roots to the Aztec people in what is now central Mexico,” reports “The Aztecs used skulls to honor the dead a millennium before the Day of the Dead celebrations emerged. Skulls, like the ones once placed on Aztec temples, remain a key symbol in a tradition that has continued for more than six centuries in the annual celebration to honor and commune with those who have passed on.” Traditionally, November 1st honors deceased children, and November 2nd honors deceased adults, according to the site Mexperience. November 2nd is an official Public Holiday in Mexico. It is celebrated passionately throughout the country and especially in smaller provincial towns and cities.

“Far from being a morbid event, Day of Dead emphasizes remembrance of past lives and expresses celebration of the continuity of life,” says Mexperience. Local families will plan for Day of the Dead celebrations days, weeks, or perhaps even a whole year in advance. Families create ofrendas, altars with offerings to the deceased, which are set up in homes or public spaces like parks or plazas and also at local cemeteries where family members are buried.

“They are usually layered,” says Mexperience. “The top tier contains a picture or pictures of the remembered deceased as well as religious statues or symbols, especially that of La Virgen Guadalupe; the second tier will contain the ofrendas: toys are usually offered for deceased children, and bottles of tequila, mezcal, or atole for deceased adults. Personal ornaments and/or the deceased’s favorite food or confection will also be present here, as will Pan de Muerto. The third tier will feature lit candles, and some people add a washbasin and a towel so that the spirits of the deceased may refresh themselves upon arrival at the altar.”

Every altar will feature calaveras, the decorated candied skulls made from sugar, as well as the bright orange marigolds, colloquially referred to as flor de muerto, or “Flower of the Dead.” Copal incense, used for ceremonies back in ancient times, is lit to draw in the spirits. A candle is lit to represent fire and shows the way to the altar from the spirit world.

The article also provides some interesting history, and context, behind those famous colorful Day of the Dead sugar skulls: “In Mexico’s thriving political art scene in the early 20th century, printmaker and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada put the image of the calaveras or skulls and skeletal figures in his art mocking politicians, and commenting on revolutionary politics, religion, and death. His most well-known work, La Calavera Catrina, or Elegant Skull, is a 1910 zinc etching featuring a female skeleton. The satirical work was meant to portray a woman covering up her indigenous cultural heritage with a French dress, a fancy hat, and lots of makeup to make her skin look whiter.”

Meanwhile, inside the Numismatic Museum, at the 2022 Vogue Day of the Dead gala, the New York Times reported, “the warm glow of too many candles to count lit up a cascade of golden cempasúchil flowers, or marigolds, and the faces of models wearing garments from the namesake line of Mexican designer Benito Santos, a gala sponsor whose clothes were shown at the event.”

“We are honoring Mexican culture, which for us is what’s most important,” Karla Martínez de Salas, Vogue Mexico’s head editor, told the paper. “What we want to highlight is the talent that there is in Mexico.”

In 2008, UNESCO recognized Mexico’s Day of the Dead as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. “This is because the event has its roots in the beliefs of the indigenous cultures which populated Mexico before the Spanish arrived,” the site reported. “The Aztecs, Toltecs, and Nahua all believed that new life comes from death, and so should be considered a celebration rather than a period marked by grief.”

Another blogger has what sounds like good advice: “If you celebrate the Day of the Dead, please participate in and enjoy the festivities, and use the opportunity to truly remember those who have preceded us in death. Day of the Dead provides a perfect time for us to learn from our Mexican and Latino neighbors and friends and to share with them a human universal: remembrance and longing for those we’ve loved and lost.”

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