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While the United States puts up spooky decorations, buying pounds of candy, and making sure costumes are ready for Halloween, families just across the border in Mexico, and in the US of Mexican descent, are getting ready for another holiday — Day of the Dead.
El Dia de Los Muertos, as it’s called in Spanish, happens on November 1st and 2nd each year, this year taking place on a Friday. No, this is not “Mexican Halloween,” but rather it’s own holiday heavily rooted in Pre-Columbian times and traditions as a celebration of life and death and the importance of family. It’s a two-day celebration and the days have distinct meanings and purposes. November 1st, Dia de Los Inocentes, is to honor children who have passed, while November 2nd, Dia de los Muertos, is to honor deceased adults. The days are meant to coincide with All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day in the Catholic faith.
The festival’s history dates way back to the civilizations that inhabited Mexico before Spanish colonization. The Aztec Empire was said to worship Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of the dead. With the arrival of the Spanish who brought Christianity to the country, the ritual became more like what it is today. The holiday has been a national holiday since the 1960s, and in 2008 became a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage event. Dead of the Dead celebrations can often vary from region to region, but there are many basic principles.
Families create intricate altars, in their homes or in the cemeteries, dedicated to their deceased loved ones. Altars can take months to construct and prepare, and are often decorated with traditional elements, like the classic vibrant papel picado, which is paper cut into intricate shapes. These altars are filled with ofrendas, or offerings in Spanish, including candles, flowers, personal items, photos, and the sweet pan de muerto. The idea is to guide the deceased family members to make the long journey to visit their loved ones in the living world. In order to guide them home, the living family members will often lay out things that their deceased loved one enjoyed from their life. For children, the ofrendas often include things like stuffed animals, toys, or candies, while for adults, it’s often a food, alcohol, and personal items.
The idea of altars in the homes date back centuries to a time when the dead were buried right in the home and an altar was placed in the home to commemorate. Some communities still practice the holiday this way, while in others, it’s more common to practice the holiday in a cemetery. In some communities, marigold petals are said to guide the loved ones from the cemetery to the family home.
Often on the night of November 1st, graveyards and homes are alight with the candlelight of the vigils and full of families ready to welcome their beloved ancestors home for a night.
Families will come to clean the graves, even if they don’t hold a vigil, and often the cleaning will also include leaving gifts or decorating. Usually, candles and flowers cover the area. When night falls, the family will share stories they remember of their family and friends to keep the memories of their loved ones alive. Storytelling, especially oral stories passed down through generations, is an aspect of Mexican culture that dates back to pre-Hispanic times. The emphasis is on telling funny and happy stories, as Mexican culture believes that ancestors would rather hear about the good than focus on the serious and sad.
The flower that is said to guide the souls of the loved ones back into the world of the living is the marigold, or the flor de muerte. Expect to see this bright orange flower in bloom all over the country. The flower blooms in the fall, during Mexico’s rainy season, just before the Day of the Dead.
Skulls and Skeletons
Calaveras, or skulls, are a common image across the country taking different forms and styles. Skulls represent the soul of the deceased friend or family member being honored and are commonly decorated with bright colors and flower patterns across the face.
Sugar Skulls, yes, little skulls literally made from sugar are commonly seen decorated with colorful icing, and dedicated to the loved one with their name iced across the front. These candies skulls can be found all across the country leading up to the Day of the Dead, as well as chocolate and cookie versions of the classic symbol.
Calacas are another traditional item involved in the celebration. These small, colorful stone skeletons appear in many parts of Mexico donning their best traditional Mexican clothing. The calacas are displayed from every corner of the towns and cities, and make appearances in cemeteries and homes alike.
Catrina Skulls may be the most famous image during the festivities. Catrina was first drawn by Jose Guadalupe Posada in the early 20th century as a satire of the adoption of European trends and has since become a symbol of the holiday. The skull’s most recognizable form today is a white skull with flowers on the forehead and patterns around the eyes, nose, and mouth. Inside the eye sockets are occasionally more flowers or drawings.
During Dias de los Muertos, kids and adults paint their faces as Catrina and many towns will hold parades of the Catrinas. The biggest Catrina parade happens in Mexico City, and you should not miss out on it!