Celebration of the Dead: A Look into Mexico’s’ Fall Celebration Dia De Los Muertos

Parade with costumes of cartoonlike skulls for Dia De Los Muertos Celebration. Dia De Los Muertos celebration[/caption]

Mexico and Latin American Culture
Latin American cultures and lifestyles are unique and vast. The regionĀ 
itself ranges from Puerto Rico, Portugal, Brazil, Quebec, and Mexico to name a few. Mexico, known for its food, Tequila, culture, and holidays is located in the Southern- region of America.

A Mexican holiday celebrated on May 5th is Cinco De Mayo, commemorating the victory of the Battle of Puebla. Dia De Los Reyes, which is a Christmastime celebration, takes place on January 6th. Semana Santa or “Holy Week” is when the Latin Catholics spend seven days leading up to Easter praying

A newly recognized holiday
Being important to Latin American Culture, one holiday was carried over and interpreted all over the world. One of the most recognized holidays born in Latin America, but also the most misinterpreted, is Dia De Los Muertos. There is more depth and meaning to the holiday, eliminating negative connotations, such as being macabre and dark.


What is Dia De Los Muertos?
In honor of the dead, Dia De Los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead” has been celebrated for decades. It originated in Mexico and branched off to Europe and the United States. From Central Mexico to Southern Mexico, the holiday differs. The main religion in Central Mexico is Catholicism. In correspondence with Dia De Los Muertos in Catholicism, this is known to tie into “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day”. While in Southern Mexico, the celebration is reminiscent of Mayan culture and their celebration “Hanal Pixan”.

For Dia De Los Muertos in all regions of Mexico, no matter religion, colorful, traditional clothing is worn, the city is adorned with beautiful decorations, and scattered on the roads are bright yellow flower petals. Lit candles and hand-painted skeletons are a beacon to those who look forward to the celebration.

Mainstream Culture
Mexico is not the only place celebrating Dia De Los Muertos. People from all walks of life celebrate in various ways. Whether it be by decorating an altar or painting their face, this holiday is currently more mainstream than ever. It has been depicted and made popular by films such as “Book of Life” (2014) and more recent “Coco” (2017). While these films help shed light on Dia De Los Muertos, there is more to celebrate during this traditional holiday.

Parot eating from a pumpkin
Pumpkins are symbolic of Halloween

Day of the Dead Versus Halloween
Dia De Los Muertos and  Halloween are around the same time. They also share some similarities like wearing costumes, which the people of Oaxaca also integrate into their own celebration. Treats are shared with friends and family. Halloween has a Jack-O-Lantern as a common symbol, while one of the symbols for Dia De Los Muertos is a Sugar Skull. Except there are many differences between the two as well. Halloween originated as a Pagan holiday and has a more playful, mischievous nature. Dia De Los Muertos is more about family, remembrance, and love, with no fear involved. There are many things to share that not everyone knows about this holiday, there is so much more to it.


Candlelit celebration, traditional of Mexico
Candlelit celebration, traditional of Mexico

When Dia De Los Muertos is celebrated?
Halloween is when it is believed Dia De Los Muertos is celebrated. The holiday is a two-day celebration that starts on the first day of November. Historically, the holiday was originally in the summer but was moved to the fall to line up with “All Saints Day”. The festivities being with a lavish parade to start the whole city attends. People line the streets to celebrate and dance to lively Mariachi music. Families then head to the cemetery to have a picnic.

Two Night Celebration

The first night
“Dia De Los Angelitos, also known as “Day of the little Angels” starts on November 1st. Honored on this night are the spirits of children who have passed on. To better suit the spirits of younger children, a specific altar is set. Sweets, games, or a favorite toy are some things you can find set on these altars.

The second night
November 2nd at midnight is when the celebration for the “Spirits of the adults”, Dia De Los Difuntos begins. The more commonly known Dia De Los Muertos follows at noon.


How Dia De Los Muertos is celebrated
The cemetery where loved ones are buried is where family and friends use these two nights to spend together. Memories of those who have passed are reminisced by gathered families. Before being decorated with candles and flowers the gravesites and headstones are cleaned. Food, drinks, pictures of the deceased, or personal items they owned, and even toys for the “Angelitos” are set up on the altar or Ofrenda.

It is believed the deceased loved ones cross over from the afterworld, so food and beverages are set on the altar. The treats would attract their spirits so they can share the offerings with their living family. In Mexican culture, they are taught to not fear the spirits. Although this may seem morbid, in Mexican culture honoring loved ones’ spirits is very important so they dedicated these two days to do exactly that.

Traditional foods for Dia De Los Muertos
Homemade food and beverage in Mexico

Homemade Champurrado
Homemade Champurrado

Pan De Muerto
“Pan de Muerto” or Bread of the Dead is a popular food baked for Dia Ded Los Muertos. This is a sweet bread that is baked round with four strips of dough stretching out and a tiny dough ball in the middle symbolizing a skull and bones. This bread is baked especially for Dia De Los Muertos and is made to pass around and share. Baked Pan De Muerte may be found in local bakeries, but it usually a handmade family tradition.

La Bebidas
Champurrado and Atole are some of the drinks for Dia De Los Muertos. Champurrado, which is a richer version of hot cocoa, is a traditional Mexican beverage. Made throughout Fall and Winter, Champurrado is not only for Dia De Los Muertos. Some of the ingredients include a brown sugar cone called a Piloncillo, water, Mexican chocolate, and also cinnamon. Atole is made with the same ingredients, in addition to milk and cornmeal to thicken it up. Being the only holiday-specific food, baked into the Pan De Muertos is time, care, and intention. 

The symbolism of Marigolds
Marigolds, also called “Flor De Muerto”,  are native to Mexico and Central America. They are the flowers most used for Dia De Los Muertos. Catholic culture took the name “Marigold” from the English name “Mary’s Gold” and is a symbol of joy, luck, and a way to say “be well”. These flowers were also used traditionally in the past by Aztecs to honor this day in their own version of the celebration.

Guiding the Dead
Guiding spirits from losing their way during their journey from the afterworld, Marigolds are placed on altars and burial grounds. The flowers act as a pathway and guide the spirits not only with their bright colors, as you can find these flowers in hues of orange, red, and yellow, but by their scent too. To quench the thirst of the spirits after their journey from the afterworld to the cemetery, water bottles and tequila are placed on the altar.

Handmade Sugar Skulls

Los Calaveras
Being very popular and mainstream in the United States Calaveras or “Sugar Skulls”, an important part of Dia De Los Muertos. The preparations for the Calaveras is quite different in Mexico than it is in the United States. In the US it is rare to see handmade items for Dia De Los Muertos and they are usually purchased. For the festivities, traditionally handmade granulated sugar Calaveras are placed on display. Ceramic hand-painted Calaveras are commonly found.

Laughing at Death
To symbolize the sweetness of life the skull is cast from sugar. Because of the way death is interpreted in Mexico, the skulls are painted vibrantly and are symbolically depicted with smiles. Death is viewed as only a temporary separation from loved ones until they have reunited with them again in the afterlife, it is not viewed as sad or mournful. The painted, toothy grin on the Calaveras is another way to show that they are “laughing at death” and do not fear what happens after we pass on.

The reason for the celebration
The cycle of life and death and the comfort that you will see your loved ones again someday is the idea for the celebration. On these nights worn by joyful families are elaborate costumes and flower crowns of Marigolds. Each painted face is an homage to honor the spirits of the dead, the most iconic being La Catrina.

The Patron of the Dead
A skeleton woman with a painted face is how the Dia De Los Muertos entity is depicted. She wears a long elegant gown reminiscent of European fashion in the 1900s. Wearing a large-brimmed hat, lined with Marigolds or candles is the way she is painted in historical art pieces. The Spanish word “Catrin” is used to describe a rich or wealthy, well-dressed man or woman and is where the name La Catrina is derived from. 

The Creator
In parody to European customs and high society in 1910 Jose Guadalupe created the entity. To make a statement about society and class types, Jose’s paintings have depicted people painted as skeletons. The skeletons symbolized all people being the same underneath our skin whether rich or poor. Aside from creating La Catrina, Jose Guadalupe was the creator of many paintings and wooden carvings, the themes always being skeletons.

In a 1940s mural painted by Diego Rivera which captures over four hundred years of Mexican history, La Catrina is found to be portrayed as a satirical figure. The muralist Diego Rivera was the husband of Frida Kahlo, who is a historical figure herself. On a satirical note, La Catrina is not the only symbolism. The people of Oaxaca, as mentioned before, dressed up in costumes, but their reasoning was not just for the festivities. They dressed up in costumes that resembled Devils to poke fun at their local leaders.

Historical Aztec-built Pyramid
Historical Aztec-built Pyramid

Aztec culture integration
La Catrina is thought to be even older than the 1900s and is found throughout many years of Mexican history. Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the Underworld to the Aztecs is where she derived from. In relation to Mexican culture, life and death in Aztec culture is celebrated rather than mourned. Aztecs also believed after death the spirits would reincarnate as butterflies or hummingbirds and if one was seen, it was a sign from your ancestors.

An entity known as the “Lady of the Dead” ruled the Aztec underworld, Mictlan as the Queen. She watched over the remains of the dead and was a figurehead for the ancient festivals celebrated in honor of the dead. She too is portrayed as a skeleton. Like Mictecacihuatl, La Catrina is the Patron of the afterlife and exists to protect the spirits of the dead.
Depending on the culture, the entity that has changed, but is known to watch over the dead and guide them to and from the afterlife into the Underworld.



Continuing the traditions
Family and tradition are the common themes that go along with Dia De Los Muertos and Latin culture. So youth are taught to be respectful and help one another, as family is very important to the culture. It is the adults’ who work hard as it is their responsibility to provide efficiently for their families. Family is the foundation of each tradition. The traditions are the building blocks that keep these cultural celebrations alive year after year. 

All around the world
Reaching the United States and different regions of the world, the Latin American traditions and culture are recognized. From Mexico to Guatemala and here in the states, the holiday has left an impact. Vibrant decorations, ornamented sugar skulls, and glowing altars in October. Lit prayer candles, Ofrendas, and offerings are in the cemeteries. For people from Mexico who may not live close to home, the flowers and Pan De Muerto bring a sense of comfort.

Folkorico Dancers dancing to traditional Mariachi Music
Folkorico Dancers dancing to traditional Mariachi Music

The importance of tradition
While keeping it warmhearted and jovial, Dia De Los Muertos has given a different perspective on life and death. Fearing the spirits is not a part of Mexican culture, the spirits of the dead are respected.  Families should honor their death and celebrate their life. Whether it be by games played, recipes cooked in the kitchen, or holidays celebrated together, traditions of Latin descent are implemented by the families. Children are taught by their elders how to bake the Pan De Muerto and make the Champurrado. Parents let their sons and daughters help decorate the Ofrenda, by lighting candles and teaching them prayers.

Dia De Los Muertos is symbolic of remembering ancestors and having hope and faith for the future of the youth. From generation to generation, these cultural traditions are taught and passed on by people of Latin American culture. When Dia De Los Muertos comes around, we are reminded of the importance of upholding traditions and keeping culture embedded into the holiday.


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