El Día de los Muertos and Halloween have some common features, but they are distinct holidays. Both festivals come from early cultural beliefs about death, and both are based on the idea that departed souls return from the netherworld at the time of year around All Hallows. Customs around Halloween seem to stem from the idea that the spirits were malevolent (children were disguised so that they wouldn't be harmed). The Day of the Dead celebrates the belief that on November 1st, departed souls are free to leave the underworld and return to the world of the living to visit relatives and loved ones.
Remembering Dear Souls in Guatemala
Festivities take place in cities and villages throughout Latin America. Mexico is best known for its El Dia de Los Muertos celebrations. Guatemala has both similar and unique traditions that incorporate historical Spanish and Catholic elements into a joyful Dia de Todos los Santos (All Saints Day) and Dia de los Difuntos (All Souls Day). Atkinson Candy Company has a special connection to Guatemala, because our company manufactures Mint Twists and peppermint candies there.
In the Cemeteries
In Pre-Hispanic times, the dead were buried close to family homes (often in a tomb underneath the central patio of the house) and there was great emphasis on maintaining ties with deceased ancestors, who were believed to continue to exist on a different plane. Now that the dead are buried away from homes, graves are decorated with the idea that the dead return there first. In some villages, flower petals are laid in paths from the cemetery to the home so that the spirits will be able to find their way. Graves are usually decorated with both seasonal flowers and wreaths made of silk flowers. Many people burn candles to illuminate the graves after nightfall. As the night comes, the cemeteries turn into celebrations with music and dancing to accompany all-night feasting and communing with family both living and dead.
When it is finally time to go to bed, locals must be careful with how they leave their homes at night. It is believed that souls often return in the form of moths, which might get trapped in a glass of water or burn in a still-lit candle. So families must make sure to extinguish any open flames and empty any water reservoirs, for if a moth dies on The Day of the Dead, the spirit that came back would be trapped and unable to visit next year.
Honoring Loved Ones
In the family home, an ofrenda (altar) is set up to greet visiting souls with offerings of their favorite foods, drink, and things enjoyed when they were alive. The ofrenda is a table display decorated with photographs of the deceased and personal mementos. For example, if the deceased enjoyed tequila when living, then tequila is placed on the altar. Likewise, if he or she savored a coffee drink, then coffee is included on the ofrenda. Other items placed on the altar include sugar skulls, often with the person's name inscribed on the top; pan de Muertos, a special bread that is made especially for the season; candles; and cempasuchil (marigolds).
Various dishes are prepared to share with family and friends in the days leading up to the festival. In Guatemala, the most famous of these dishes is Fiambre, which is a type of salad with a base of pickled vegetables with cold cuts and sausages. Villagers take the dishes to the cemetery to eat among the graves of loved ones.
The Giant Kite Festival
In Guatemala, November also marks the appearance of winds that are characteristic of the new season. These winds create perfect conditions for kite flying. Indigenous people have used kites to communicate and unite with their deceased loved ones, a tradition dating back more than 3,000 years. According to the elders, the impact of the wind against the kites also takes away bad spirits. What makes Kite Festivals in Guatemala unique is the size of the kites.
Called El Festival de Barriletes Gigantes, the kites you see this day are masterpieces built by the local communities. People spend months and sometimes all year creating larger-than-life kites that can be several stories tall. Many are circular but some are more elaborate, taking the shape of a peacock, owl, or butterfly. They are all created from tissue paper or rice paper and bamboo so that, even though they are large, they can be flown when the wind permits. Often, the kites display important social messages regarding the environment, women’s rights, and protecting children.
Celebrating the Elements
All of these traditions honor the four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire. At the cemetery and on ofrendas, families burn candles to help guide the deceased back to the land of the living that represent fire. Water and earth are represented in the food, drink, and flowers offered to the dead. Papel picado—cut out tissue paper used in the kite festivals and in the home— represent wind and air.
In Guatemala, the beautiful tradition of honoring deceased loved ones, paired with the vibrant colors and immensity of the kites, are worthy celebrations embracing death and life.