The Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased loved ones. The union may be brief, but it is filled with a lot of celebration. It is a holiday unlike any other because death is celebrated instead of mourned. The holiday is a mixture of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion, and Spanish culture. Once the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire in the 16th century, they introduced the religion of Christianity. The Catholic Church moved the indigenous people’s celebrations honoring the dead to match up with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The holidays became a mixture of Latin American indigenous traditions and non-official Catholic practices or notions of the afterlife. Each year the holiday is celebrated between October 31st and November 2nd. The celebration starts with Halloween on October 31st, next is All Saints Day on November 1st, and ends with All Souls Day on November 2nd. During this celebration, the festivities unfold in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Today, Mexicans from all kinds of different ethnic and religious backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos. The holiday itself is a reaffirmation of indigenous life.
Origins of the Day of the Dead
Roots of the Day of the Dead holiday trace back to around three thousand years ago to rituals honoring the dead from pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztecs and other Nahua people that lived in what is now central Mexico believed that the universe was a cyclical thing. They saw death as an integral and always present part of life. They believed when a person died, they traveled to Chicunatlán, the Land of the Dead. The deceased reach Mictlán, the final resting place, after they complete a journey through nine challenging levels. Nahua people’s rituals include honoring the dead by providing the deceased with food, water, and tools to help with their difficult journey in the afterlife. This inspired the tradition of leaving food and other offerings on their loved ones’ graves and setting up altars called ofrendasin their homes on the Day of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead is not Halloween. People make that mistake because of the time of the year the holiday is. The two holidays have similar afterlife beliefs as, at that time of the year, the border between worlds is crossable for spirits. Halloween originated from a Celtic festival in which people have bonfires and wear costumes to ward off evil spirits. During the Day of the Dead, people who celebrate the holiday embrace and welcome the spirits of their loved ones.
How the Day of the Dead is Celebrated
It is believed that on the Day of the Dead the border between the spirit world and the human world is crossable. During this brief period when the border is crossable, souls of the deceased return to the living world to feast, drink, and party with their loved ones. Living family members of the dead treat the deceased as honored guests at their celebrations. They leave the deceased’s favorite foods and all kinds of other offerings at gravesites or at the family ofrenda. Ofrendas can be decorated with things like candles, marigolds, and stacks of food. Prominent symbols related to the Day of the Dead are calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). In the early 20th century, cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada incorporated skeletons into his artwork. His most well-known piece, La Calavera Catrina (Elegant Skull), features a female skull with makeup on and is dressed in fancy clothes. The piece itself was intended to be satirical. The woman in the piece was covering up her indigenous cultural heritage with a French dress, a big fancy hat, and even white makeup to make her skin appear whiter. La Calavera Catrina was eventually adopted as one of the most recognizable Day of the Dead icons. Catrina was even featured in a painting years later, in 1947. Mexican painter Diego Rivera put Catrina in the center of a mural that portrayed the end of Mexico’s Revolutionary War. Her elegant clothes signify a mocking tone towards the celebration. Her smile, which can be noticed through all the pompousness of her appearance, reminds the viewer to accept death because it is the common destination of mortality. Contemporary Day of the Dead traditions now include people wearing skull masks and having skull shaped sugar candy. Skulls take many forms during the holiday, like sugar candies, clay decorations, and face painting. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the term calavera was used to describe short, humorous poems. These poems were often seen as sarcastic tombstone epitaphs that were published in newspapers to poke fun at the living. The literary calaveras soon became a popular part of the Día de los Muertos celebrations. The poems can be in print, read aloud, or broadcast on television and radio programs.
November 1st at 12:00 am is the Día de los Angelitos or the Day of the Little Angels. During this time, it is believed that the spirits of deceased children are reunited with their families. The names of the deceased children are often written on a sugar skull. The ofrendas are often filled with the child’s favorite snacks, toys, and candies. November 2nd at 12:00 am is the Día de los Difuntos. During this time, the celebration switches to honoring deceased adults. The ofrendas take on more of an adult theme. They are filled with things like tequila, pan de muerto, mezcal, pulque, and jars of Atole. Pan de muerto means bread of the dead. It is a typical sweet bread (pan dulce) that often has anise seeds and is decorated with bones and skulls also made from dough. Living family members play games together and reminisce about their deceased loved ones. November 2nd at 12:00 pm is the Día de los Muertos. This time all the dead are celebrated. Today, people celebrate by coming together dressed up with calavera painted faces and having parades. Families usually visit cemeteries and decorate gravesites with Marigold flowers, gifts, and sugar skulls. It is also customary to clean and restore the gravestones of deceased loved ones.
For many people around the world, death is seen as a sad event. Those who celebrate the Day of the Dead view death as a welcome part of life. That is why there are so many brightly colored skeletons and skulls everywhere during the holiday. Viewing death this way tracks back to the Aztecs. The Aztecs had a one-month festival in which they celebrated death and honored the lady of death, Mictlancíhuatl. The lady of death was believed to protect the departed and help them in the afterlife. She was celebrated for an entire month by the Aztecs during their ninth month. Their ninth month roughly corresponds to late July and early August of our calendar today. Aztec mythology states that Mictlancíhuatl was sacrificed as a child and then she grew up in the underworld. She and her husband rule over the underworld. She is often depicted with flayed skin and a skeleton jaw. This is because she is linked to both death and resurrection. In one of her myths, it is believed that she collects bones so they can be restored and returned to the land of the living by the gods.
Flor de Muerto (Mexican Marigolds)
It is believed that marigolds create the pathways that guide the spirits of the deceased to their ofrendas. Marigolds are supposed to attract the souls of the departed because of their vibrant colors and scent. They are called flor de muerto, which is Spanish for flower of the dead. They are symbolic of the beauty and fragility of life. They are symbolic of the fragility of life because they bloom in the summer and die during the first frost of the fall. There are about sixty annuals and perennials of marigold flowers that are native to Mexico and Central America. In Mexico, marigolds are called cempasuchitl. This name is derived from Aztec origins and roughly translates to “flower of many petals.” Marigolds were sacred to the Aztec people because their bright color represented the sun.
Even though skulls and skeletons are the most recognizable aspect of the Day of the Dead, ofrendas are the tradition that holds more meaning. The word ofrenda is Spanish for offering. Ofrendas embody what the holiday itself is about because it is a collection of offerings dedicated to the person or people being honored. These altars are meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living instead of the normal use of altars for worship. Ofrendas are usually tables covered by a brightly colored oilcloth and on top of that sits a collection of photographs and other personal items from the deceased. The lower part of the altar is for offerings and the offerings usually consist of traditional Mexican cuisine. There are other items placed with the food that usually represent the honor of a deceased person’s tastes and likes. Copal incense is also placed on the ofrenda as well. The incense is made from tree resin and the smoke is supposed to transmit prayers and purify the air around the altar. Altars usually have objects that represent the four elements when completed. Water is placed there for the element of water, food is placed there to represent the element of earth, a candle is placed on the altar to represent the element of fire, and the element of air is represented by papel picado. Papel picado is colorful tissue paper art that has cut out designs. It is usually strung across the altar or on a wall nearby. Most children are taught how to make papel picado and are told its purpose is to help guide the spirits back home.
Día de los Muertos in Different Mexican Communities
A countless number of communities in Mexico celebrate Día de los Muertos. The styles and customs can vary greatly between communities depending on the region and the region’s pre-Hispanic culture. Some places’ celebrations stand out more than others. Pátzcuaro is a municipality in the state of Michoacán which is around two-hundred and twenty-five miles west of Mexico City. One of the most moving Day of the Dead celebrations takes place there. Indigenous people from the countryside meet at Pátzcuaro Lake and get into canoes. They have one candle burning in each bow as they paddle to the tiny island of Janitzio. On the island, they have an all-night vigil in an indigenous cemetery. In the Mexico City suburb called Mixquic, bells from a historic Augustinian convent toll. The members of the community then proceed to the local cemetery bearing candles and flowers. Once there at the cemetery, they clean and decorate the graves of loved ones. Tuxtepec is a small city in the northeast part of Oaxaca state. For several days before the holiday, locals arrange colored sawdust, flower petals, rice, and other organic materials into ruglike patterns on the streets. This is because Tuxtepec is best known for its sawdust rugs. Sawdust rugs are even judged in a contest held on the holiday itself. The town of Aguascalientes is about one-hundred and forty miles north of Guadalajara. It is the birthplace of José Guadalupe Posada. Aguascalientes’s Day of the Dead celebrations last about a week with its Festival de Calaveras or Festival of the Skulls. During the festival there is a parade of skulls which is a grand event.
The Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is a holiday celebrating and honoring the dead. It is a blend of the indigenous traditions of the Aztecs and Catholic religious beliefs. The Mexican holiday is a unique celebration that spreads over the days of November 1st and November 2nd, when it is believed that the spirits can crossover into the human world. The holiday highlights the importance of family within Mexican culture. By honoring family members on the family ofrenda, it honors the deceased and shows they want to welcome their spirit back to the human world for the celebration. The Day of the Dead is a significant part of Mexican culture, with the holiday not just being known in the country itself but worldwide. Studying and understanding this holiday can give insight into how the culture views death and the cycle of life. To them, life does not end with death, but death is just the beginning of a new life. Día de los Muertos dives deep into Mexican cultural history and even embodies the two main groups of people part of their history, indigenous people like the Aztecs and the Spanish settlers. The message of the holiday even speaks to people outside the culture and has made appearances in United States popular culture in recent years.