Día de los Muertos is my favorite holiday. It’s incredibly fascinating to me and I look forward to it every year. My parents were both born in Mexico and came to the US in their mid twenties. They have instilled in me (and in my many siblings) the various traditions and customs of the Mexican culture. I grew up speaking Spanish (mostly at home/with family) and English (from school and from living in the US), which have formed the basis of my desire to learn languages and about cultures. Though it is not necessarily a major holiday for my family, my parents did teach us all about Día de los Muertos; what it signifies, how it’s celebrated and this particular attitude toward death that many Latinos have. I’ve never actually celebrated at a grave site, but every year I participate in the traditions and customs that surround the Day of the Dead. So read on to discover more about this increasingly popular celebration of life and death.
Origin of Día de los Muertos
Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that celebrates, remembers, and honors the lives and deaths of ancestors.
Because it expresses beliefs regarding death, spirituality, and the afterlife, Día de los Muertos is considered a religious holiday as well as a cultural one.
The history of Día de los Muertos dates back to the times of the indigenous people of Mexico.
Aztec warriors. Picture from WikiMedia Commons.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they discovered this ceremony of the dead , which the Aztec had been practicing for thousands of years (Day of the dead, 2015).
But rather than fearing death, not only did the Aztecs welcome it, they mocked it.
“…the natives viewed it as the continuation of life…To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake,” (Day of the dead, 2015).
Día de los Muertos originally took place at the beginning of August, which corresponded to the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar.
Aztec solar calendar. Photo from Pixabay.
In an attempt to convert the Aztecs to Catholicism, the Spaniards moved the celebration to coincide with All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ day (Day of the dead, 2015).
November 1 is also sometimes referred to as Día de los Inocentes (day of the innocent) for commemorating children and November 2 as Día de los Muertos (day of the dead) for commemorating adults (Sue, n.d.).
The goddess Mictecacihuatl, or Lady of the Dead was the overseer of the dead and festivals of the dead (Cortez, n.d.).
Mictecacihuatl, Aztec goddess of death. Picture from WikiMedia Commons.
The Aztec and other indigenous people of Mesoamerica, would keep skulls as trophies and display them during Día de los Muertos.
Aztec mosaic skull. Phto from WikiMedia Commons.
The calaveras or skulls symbolized death and rebirth to the Aztec. They also believed that the spirits of the dead would come back to the earth during the then month-long observance.
Even today, Aztec traditions and beliefs like Mictecacihuatl and the calaveras continue to play important parts in the celebration.
Calaveras. Photo from Pixabay.
Celebrating Día de los Muertos Today
Many people, mostly in rural parts of Mexico, spend Día de los Muertos at the gravesites of their ancestors.
Mexican family tidying and decorating gravesites for Dia de Muertos at a cemetary in Almoloya del Rio, State of Mexico, Mexico. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
Others create beautifully decorated altares, or altars, which serve to commemorate the departed and welcome their spirits back to earth.
Ofrendas, or offerings, of food, water, skulls, candles, incense, photographs, and cempazuchitl are placed on the altares for the spirits as well as for decoration.
With their vibrant colors and rich fragrance, the petals of the cempazuchitl (orange-yellow Mexican marigolds) are used to make trails that lead the spirits to the altars. Magenta terciopelo flowers are used to symbolize the recent death of a friend or family member.
Cempazuchitl and terciopelo flowers. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
Family and friends place the favorite foods of the deceased on the altares as well as things that they enjoyed doing in life, such as sports equipment, favorite music, instruments, leisure activities, books, etc.
Altares dedicated to children also include toys, candies, sweets, and treats for them to enjoy in the afterlife.
Loteria boards (Mexican game). Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
Wooden balero toys. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
Mexican candy vendor in Mexico City. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
At nightfall, family and friends gather to remember and honor the lives of their deceased loved ones and to reconnect with them in their death.
Folk music, traditional and Aztec dances fill the smoky, incense-filled air.
Copal (tree resin) incense burner. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
Candles flicker and gleam in the night. A moment of loss and lament is transformed into a fun and joyous celebration.
Candles placed on graves for Day of the Dead celebration. Photo from Pixabay.
Other staples of the holiday are papel picado, sugar or clay calaveras and pan de muerto.
Altar decorations. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
La Catrina, a character created by cartoon illustrator José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s has become a mascot of sorts for Day of the Dead.
The “Dapper Skeleton” as it is sometimes known, is an etching of a female skeleton wearing an elegant hat, mimicking European aristocrats from that time.
La Catrina by José Guadalupe Posada. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
Posada’s image is a satirical portrait of Mexican natives who strived to imitate the culture of wealthy Europeans. It also expresses the idea that regardless of how wealthy you were in life, or who you were, we’re all equal in death.
Day of the Dead celebration in El Paso, Texas, USA in 2012. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
Many cities in Mexico and the US often host public Day of the Dead celebrations that people can attend to participate in the festivities.
Aztec dances, traditional dances, calaveritas literarias (“literary skulls”), food and other vendors, music performances, art displays, and altar showcases are just some of the activities available.
Día de los Muertos Around the World
Various countries worldwide have adopted the Day of the Dead festival or have a similar holiday/celebration. You can learn more about these other international celebrations below:
Celebrate Día de los Muertos at home!
There are many ways you can join in on all the fun festivities of Day of the Dead in your own home!
Learn to paint your face like a calavera or sugar skull. You can do basic skull makeup or try something more ornate!
Practice your Spanish with some Day of Dead related refranes, or sayings and poems like this one:
“La muerte es flaca y no puede conmigo” which translates to “Death is skinny/weak and she can’t carry me” (Hernandez, 2011). Read more here!
Learn a traditional dance, like La Danza de los Viejitos (the dance of the elderly)!
Decorate your altar or your house with brightly colored papel picado! Start of with simple patterns and then move on to more intricate designs!
Papel Picado. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
Enjoy some deliciously soft and ever-popular Pan de Muerto, ( bread of the dead or dead man’s bread). Find the recipe here.
Pan de Muerto. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.
Yes, Mexicans do mourn their dead.
We feel that grief just like anyone else, but we also take this time to remember the good times, to celebrate the joys of life, and to accept death. We express our fear by laughing at death in the face.
Through celebration, food, art, dance, music, spirituality, togetherness and love we learn to live alongside death. We accept it as the next step, the next adventure.
Cortez, Constance, Dr. “Dia De Los Muertos.” Dayofthedeadsf.org. N.p., n.d.
Web. 5 Oct. 2015. <http://www.dayofthedeadsf.org/history.html>.
“Day of the Dead History: Ritual Dating Back 3000 Years.” Azcentral.com. N.p.,
9 Oct. 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015
Hernandez, Aracely. “Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).” Dia De Los
Muertos (Day of the Dead). N.p., 2011. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.
Sue, Caryl. “Dia De Los Muertos Lively Mexican Holiday Honors the Dead.”
National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.