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Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead (“Día de Muertos”) is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, particularly in the central and southern regions, and by Mexicans living elsewhere, especially in the United States.

This holiday is recognized in many cultures and countries and is dedicated to family and friends gathering to pray and remember deceased friends and family members and to help support their spiritual journey.

In 2008, the tradition was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Prior to Spanish colonization, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer. Gradually, it was associated with October 31, November 1, and 2, to coincide with All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.

Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars, honoring the deceased using calaveras, Aztec marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts.

Visitors also leave possessions of the deceased at the graves.

Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl.

Originally, the Day of the Dead as such was not celebrated in northern Mexico, where it was unknown until the 20th century because its indigenous people had different traditions.

The people and the church rejected it as a day related to syncretizing pagan elements with Catholic Christianity. They held the traditional ‘All Saints’ Day’ in the same way as other Christians in the world.

There was a limited Mesoamerican influence in this region, and relatively few indigenous inhabitants from the regions of Southern Mexico, where the holiday was celebrated.

In northern Mexico, Día de Muertos is celebrated because the Mexican government made it a national holiday based on educational policies in the 1960s as a unifying national tradition based on the traditions of indigenous peoples.

Origins of the Day of the Dead

The celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico originated from ancient traditions of pre-Columbian culture. Rituals celebrating the death of ancestors were observed by these civilizations for perhaps 2,500–3,000 years.

The festival, which evolved into the modern Day of the Dead, fell on the 9th month of the Aztec calendar.

The festival took place around the beginning of August and was celebrated for a whole month. The celebrations were dedicated to the goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead”, corresponding to the modern La Calavera Catrina.

By the end of the 20th century, most regions of Mexico had developed the practice of honoring deceased children and infants on November 1 and honoring deceased adults on November 2.

November 1 is usually called Día de los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”), but also Día de los Angelitos (“Day of the Little Angels”); November 2 is called Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (“Day of the Dead”).

Celebration, traditions and ritual

The summary of the 3-day celebration, the Day of the Dead:

  • October 31 (All Hallows Eve): Children make altars to invite the spirits of dead children to come back for a visit.
  • November 1 (All Saints Day): Adult spirits will come to visit.
  • November 2 (All Souls Day): Families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives.

The 3-day holiday is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations.

People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars containing their favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed.

The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so 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 three-day period families usually clean and decorate graves; most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with altars, which often include orange Mexican marigolds (Tagetes erecta) called cempasúchil. In modern Mexico, the marigold is sometimes called Flor de Muerto (Flower of Dead).

These flowers are thought to attract the souls of the dead to the offerings.

Toys are brought for dead children (“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.

Some families have altars in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, “pan de muerto” (“bread of the dead”), sugar skulls, and beverages such as atole. Altars 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 altar food, so though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value.

Pillows and blankets are left out so 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. In many places, people have picnics at the gravesite, as well.

Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes. These sometimes feature a Christian cross, statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other people, scores of candles, and offerings.

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 noise will wake up the dead, some will also dress up as the deceased.

Public schools at all levels build altars with offerings, usually omitting religious symbols. Government offices usually have at least a small altar, as this holiday is seen as important to the Mexican heritage.

Those with a distinctive talent for writing sometimes create short poems, called calaveras (skulls), mocking epitaphs of friends, describing interesting habits and attitudes, or funny anecdotes.

This custom originated in the 18th or 19th century after a newspaper published a poem narrating a dream of a cemetery in the future, “and all of us were dead”, proceeding to read the tombstones.

Newspapers dedicate calaveras to public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of the famous calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator. Theatrical presentations of Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla are also traditional on this day.

José Guadalupe Posada created a famous print of a figure he called La Calavera Catrina (“The Elegant Skull”) as a parody of a Mexican upper-class female.

This striking image of a costumed female with a skeleton face has become associated with the Day of the Dead, and Catrina figures often are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead observances.

A common symbol of the holiday is the skull, which celebrants represent in masks, called “calacas” (colloquial term for “skeleton”), and foods such as sugar or chocolate skulls, which are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead.

Sugar skulls can be given as gifts to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include “pan de muerto”, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits, often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.

The traditions and activities that take place in celebration of the Day of the Dead are not universal, often varying from town to town. In the town of Pátzcuaro, the tradition is very different if the deceased is a child rather than an adult.

On November 1 of the year after a child’s death, the godparents set a table in the parents’ home with sweets, fruits, pan de muerto, a cross, a rosary (used to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for them), and candles.

This is meant to celebrate the child’s life, with respect and appreciation for the parents. There is also dancing in colorful costumes, often with skull-shaped masks and devil masks in the plaza or garden of the town.

At midnight on November 2, the people light candles and ride winged boats called “mariposas” (“butterflies”) to Janitzio, an island in the middle of the lake where there is a cemetery, to honor and celebrate the lives of the dead there.

In contrast, the town of Ocotepec, north of Cuernavaca in the State of Morelos, opens its doors to visitors in exchange for small wax candles to show respect for the recently deceased.

In return, the visitors receive tamales and atole. This is done only by the owners of the house where someone in the household has died in the previous year. People arrive early to eat for free and enjoy altars set up to receive visitors.

In some parts of the country (where in recent years other customs have been displaced), children in costumes roam the streets, knocking on people’s doors for a calaverita, a small gift of candies or money; they also ask passersby for it.

This relatively recent custom is similar to that of Halloween’s trick-or-treating in the United States.

Some people believe possessing Day of the Dead items can bring good luck.

Many people paint their faces or have dolls of the dead to carry with them. They also clean their houses and prepare the favorite dishes of their deceased loved ones to place upon their altar or offerings.

Food and drink traditions

During the Day of the Dead festivities, food is eaten by living people and given to the spirits of their departed ancestors as offerings. Tamales are one of the most common dishes prepared for this day for both purposes.

Pan de Muerto and calaveras are associated specifically with the Day of the Dead. Pan de Muerto is a type of sweet roll shaped like a bun, topped with sugar, and often decorated with bone-shaped phalanges pieces.

Calaveras, or sugar skulls, display colorful designs to represent the vitality and individual personality of the departed.

Drinks are also important to the tradition of the Day of the Dead. Historically, the main alcoholic drink was pulque while today families will commonly drink the favorite beverage of their deceased ancestors.

Other drinks associated with the holiday are atole and champurrado, warm, thick, non-alcoholic drinks.

Jamaica iced tea is a popular herbal tea made of the flowers and leaves of the Jamaican hibiscus plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa), known as flor de Jamaica in Mexico. It is served cold and quite sweet with a lot of ice.

Dia de los Muertos around the world

The holiday has spread throughout the world, being absorbed into other deep traditions in honor of the dead. It has become a national symbol and as such is taught (for educational purposes) in the nation’s schools.

Many families celebrate a traditional “All Saints’ Day” associated with the Catholic Church.

Dia de los Muertos in Belize

In Belize, the Day of the Dead is practiced by people of the Yucatec Maya ethnicity. The celebration is known as Hanal Pixan which means “food for the souls” in their language. Altars are constructed and decorated with food, drinks, candies, and candles put on them.

Dia de los Muertos in Guatemala

Guatemalan celebrations of the Day of the Dead feature the construction and flying of giant kites, and visits to grave sites. The flying of giant kites, often intricately decorated, is a symbolic way to communicate with the spirits of the departed.

These kites are believed to carry messages to the afterlife.

“Fiambre” is a central culinary element of the celebration. It’s a cold salad that combines a wide array of ingredients and flavors, representing a connection to the ancestors. The dish is made exclusively for the Day of the Dead.

Dia de los Muertos in the USA

In many USA communities with Mexican residents, Day of the Dead celebrations are very similar to those held in Mexico. In some states such as Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the celebrations tend to be mostly traditional.

People bring offerings of flowers, photos, mementos, and food for their departed loved ones, which they place at an elaborately and colorfully decorated altar. A program of traditional music and dance also accompanies the community event.

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