Sunday, 5 November 2017

Day of the Dead festival

I was at the 14th edition of Day of the Dead/ Dia de los Muertos festival at Harbourfront Centre this weekend. Day of the Dead is a celebration of the life of the deceased people, their memories, their achievements, and their impact on the coming generations. This year’s festival edition is dedicated in honor of the victims of the earthquakes in September 2017 in Mexico.

The festival showcased a number of contemporary and traditional ofrendas. By talking to the ofrenda organizers, I learned that in 2003 the Mexican Day of the Dead is recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage. I also learned about the various elements of La ofrenda and their meanings:
  1. Candles: ascension of the spirit, symbol of love that guides the soul to the altar.
  2. Bread of the Dead: represents the generosity of the recipient and the gift of the land itself.
  3. Toys or personal objects: the dead person’s preferred toys or personal objects.
  4. Incense and copal: to move away the evil spirits.
  5. Photo of the deceased: a framed photo of the dead person to whom the altar is dedicated, usually positioned in a prime spot on the altar.
  6. Papel picado: these decorative pieces of cut paper are draped around the altar’s edge or hung from above.
  7. Banquet: to celebrate the arrival of the souls the favourite dishes of the deceased are offered to them.
  8. Glass of water: to quench the thirst of the soul and to strengthen him or her for the return.
  9. Sugar skulls: they represent the deceased relatives of the family.
  10. Flowers: yellow-orange flowers, also called cempasuchitl.
  11. Images of saints: or other role models who were important in the dead person’s life.
Below are pictures of some of the ofrendas on display at the festival.

1. Homage to the celebration of Day of the Dead in Lake Patzcuaro by Edgar Alejandre Perez:

"Janitzio Island, in the middle of Lake Patzcuaro, is the site of one of Mexico’s most celebrated Night of the Dead observances. Legend has it that the “veil between darkness and light” is the thinnest around this island. Each year on November 1st, the islanders and their neighbours take to their boats to enact the candlelight ritual enhanced by the flames reflected in the water, the boats laden with flowers, and the boaters chanting."

2. This ofrenda represents the lake region in Michoacan where the tradition of waiting for spirits of the departed include flowers, corn, fire (candles), food, water, incense (Copal) and are key elements that will feed the soul of those who have passed away for a whole year.

3. Large ofrendas are made in houses of the departed where the community visits with offerings of bread, fruits and candles. Visitors are also fed with foods made from corn.

4. The ofrenda below by Ilyana Martinez, is made up of many niches or nichos, to create a whole. With paint, paper, and cardboard the artist alludes to some of the artisanal traditions of handmade objects in Mexico: papel picado (colourful tissue paper banners which have been cut out and punched with shapes, figures, or letters), and cartoneria (objects made with cardboard or paper mache).

Ofrenda by Ilyana Martinez

5. The ofrenda below by EXATEC Ontario is dedicated to the earthquake victims of Mexico:

Ofrenda by EXATEC Ontario

The market at the festival featured Mexican vendors offering unique jewelry, home d├ęcor, crafts, clothing, Day of the Dead items and treats such as the edible skulls made from sugar, known as calaveras, and Bread of the Dead (Pan de Muertos) which I was told is orange-flavoured.

Day of the Dead decorative skulls
Day of the Dead items
Pan de Muertos and Calaveras
Images of Catrinas
There were Mexican cooking sessions held by some of the most exemplary cooks in Mexico, as well as Mexico's traditional music played by Mariachi Azteca, one of Toronto’s pioneer mariachi bands.

By attending the festival, I've learned a lot about the Day of the Dead celebration.

I’m dedicating this blog post to my dear friend, Thekla, who died too young. I miss you and our friendship very much. On this day, I celebrate your life, your achievements, and your legacy.


  1. This is a very nice tribute to your friend, Natalie.
    I knew very little about the history behind this day. Thank you for sharing it.

    1. Thank you, Donna, for your comment. I learned a lot from the festival, and the celebration makes the topic of death less scary.

  2. Such beautiful colors in the ofrendas. And my love of the sea has me drawn to the first ofrenda 'Homage to the celebration of Day of the Dead in Lake Patzcuaro by Edgar Alejandre Perez'. How I would love to go to Janitzio Island for their celebration.

    I am sorry to hear of your friend Thekla. Beautiful to see you celebrating her life, achievements and legacy on this day. I also had a friend taken too young. 7 years have past but I still miss her every day.

    1. Thank you, Lisa, for visiting and leaving a comment. I was drawn to the first ofrenda for the exact same reason, and chose to place it first in my post. The vibrant colors gave me some joy and comfort when I thought of my friend. I'm sorry to hear of your friend, too.

  3. That's so nice that you don't have to go to Mexico to celebrate the Day of the Dead in person. Toronto is such a multi-cultural city where you can experience many things. Thanks for the explanation of some of the rituals. Sorry to hear about your friend. This festival and the celebration every year, is a good way to remember her and pay respects to loved ones that have passed.

    1. Diversity and multiculturalism are definitely some of Toronto's best assets, Liesbet. It's my pleasure to share what I learned about the Day of the Dead here. It also made me feel a little bit better to have a special event that I can mentally dedicate to my friend who died.

  4. I learned a lot from your post, Natalie. I did some work in Monterey, Mexico and was taken to what was apparently the very best store for true Mexican art - a place where the Clintons and the Bushs shopped when they were in Mexico. Anyway, tons of Day of the Dead festival pieces which were colourful, but meaningless to me until I read your post.
    It's a great idea to dedicate your post to your friend.

    1. Happy to share my learning, Karen! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  5. My favorite holiday! I have always created an altar or ofrenda for my nephew, Andrew, who died with cancer at the age of 3. The pan de muertos I have sampled tasted more of anise than orange but I imagine it can be made with several flavors.
    All of the ofrendas you featured are lovely but my fav was the one made in memory of the Mexican earthquake victims.

    1. Very sorry to hear of your loss, Leslie. I wonder if the orange flavour is specific to the Toronto vendor. I thought the orange flavour would go with the colour of the flowers for the event.