El Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is a holiday celebrated mainly in Latin America and is gaining in popularity in the United States and Canada. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The celebration occurs on the 1st and 2nd of November, in connection with the Catholic holy days of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day which take place on those days. Traditions include building private altars honoring the deceased, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts.
Scholars trace the origins of the modern holiday to indigenous observances dating back thousands of years, and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl (known in English as “The Lady of the Dead”). Similar holidays are celebrated in many parts of the world; for example, it is a public holiday in Brazil, where many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their loved ones who have died. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe and in the Philippines, and similarly-themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.
The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Mexican or Aztec, Maya, P’urhépecha, and Totonac. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2500–3000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, it was common to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead,” corresponding to the modern Catrina.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in America in the 15th century they were appalled at the indigenous pagan practices, and in an attempt to convert the locals to Roman Catholicism moved the popular festival to the beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic All Saints Day (in which saints are honored) and All Souls Day (of observance and prayer for those who have died and those souls in purgatory). All Saints’ Day is the day after Halloween, which was in turn based on the earlier pagan ritual of Samhain, the Celtic day and feast of the dead. The Spanish combined their custom of All Souls’ Day with the similar Mesoamerican festival, creating the Día de lo Muertos, The Day of the Dead. This is an example of syncretism or the blending of a significant event from two different cultural traditions. Indigenous people of the Americas often would outwardly adopt the European rituals, while maintaining their original native beliefs.
In most regions of Mexico, November 1st honors deceased children and infants where as deceased adults are honored on November 2nd. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1st mainly as “Día de los Inocentes” (Day of the Innocents) but also as “Día de los Angelitos” (Day of the Little Angels) and November 2nd as “Día de los Muertos” or “Día de los Difuntos” (Day of the Dead).
For one of Mexico’s most colorful and magical displays of Day of the Dead is in Oaxaca City in the state of Oaxaca. Local markets burst with preparatory activities, and playful skeleton imagery adorns storefronts and home windows. The festival formally begins on October 31st, where families pay honor to their ancestors or deceased loved ones with the careful and sometimes elaborate construction of an in house altar. Over the years, the altars have evolved into objects of art, making this celebration a true exhibition. Typically, homes are open to those interested in paying homage to their dead.
Throughout the three days, the city arranges events at the local San Miguel Cemetery, such as exhibitions, altar competitions, music and prayers for the dead. In Oaxaca City’s zocalo (main square), competing groups of students mold giant three-dimensional sand paintings depicting tombs, skeletons, ghosts and other aspects of death.
Another mainstay during the festivities is the Oaxacan mole negro (black mole), a rich sauce consisting of more than twenty different spices and considered the “king of moles” in the region. Typically served in tamales, the savory paste is enjoyed by both the living and the dead.
Only 25 miles southeast of Mexico City is the village of Mixquic, a magnet for visitors and locals during Day of the Dead. The area takes on a busy and festive air in the final days of October as merchants set up street stands to hawk their wares for the Day of the Dead. In the cemetery, all family burial plots are elaborately embellished with an array of earthly delights in the hope of luring departed spirits. Each year, a street fair is held from October 30 to November 2 that fills the village streets fanning out from the main plaza.
Similar to the Halloween tradition in the United States, on the night of Oct. 31, children go from house to house asking for goodies. Most homes have large, intricate altars for Day of the Dead. Children kneel at the altar and recite prayers before being offered food-gifts. Then, they move on to the next home repeating the same ritual of kneeling and prayers. To light their way, children carry carved green and white chilacayote (squash), which look incredibly similar to jack-o-lanterns.
As darkness falls upon Mixquic, the glow of thousands of votive candles illuminates the way for the dead. At midnight they are called home with the mournful tolling of bells. Then each soul is lovingly remembered with recitations of the Rosary. The food-laden street fair roars outside the church graveyard, villagers descend upon the cemetery with food, drink, candles and cempasuchil (marigolds).
Many people believe that during the Day of the Dead, it is easier for the souls of the departed to visit the living. People will go to cemeteries to communicate with the souls of the departed, and will build private altars, containing the favorite foods and beverages, and photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.
Plans for the day are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods to be offered to the dead. During the period of November 1 and November 2, families usually clean and decorate graves; most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas, or offerings, which often include orange marigolds called “cempasúchitl” (originally named cempoalxochitl, Nahuatl for “twenty (i.e., many) flowers”). In modern Mexico this name is sometimes replaced with the term “Flor de Muerto” (“Flower of the Dead”). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or “the little angels”), and bottles of tequila, mezcal or pulque or jars of atole for adults. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) or sugar skulls and beverages such as atole.
The ofrendas are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the “spiritual essence” of the ofrenda food, so even though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so that the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes. These altars usually have the Christian cross, statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other persons, scores of candles, and an ofrenda. Traditionally, families spend some time around the altar praying and telling anecdotes about the deceased. In some locations, celebrants wear shells on their clothing so when they dance the dead will wake up because of the noise. Some will dress up as the deceased.
Dia De Los Muertos in United States
On of the biggest celebrations in the US is at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, with an updated, inter-cultural version of the Day of the Dead. There, in a mixture of Mexican traditions and Hollywood hip, conventional altars are set up side-by-side with altars to Jayne Mansfield and Johnny Ramone. This year there will be art exhibits, costume contests, colorful native dancers and music intermixing with performance artists. Three stages will be set up with entertainment running all afternoon and evening. If you live anywhere near, this is not to be missed! I so wish I was going!
Do not feel guilty for living,
When I have passed away,
Keep Smiling , laughing, playing,
And do this everyday,
Promise you won’t waste tears on me,
Don’t waste your precious dreams,
Don’t waste your heart wishing for me,
For life is not what it seems.
It’s just a few short moments,
Slips through your hands like sand,
So live every second
Laugh and smile all you can,
In case you forget I’ll be watching,
Making sure you have fun,
I love you so much dear daughter,
I love you so much dear son.