Originally written on November 2, 2020. Updated 2023
First: did you know that the Day of the Dead has a history older than Christmas?
Historically, Jesus of Nazareth was born in the year 1 A.D., despite some the scholars argue Jesus’ birthday was closer to 5 B.C.
Well, while Mary and Joseph were bickering over baby names, Mesoamerican cultures like the Maya were already about 1,000 years deep into an annual festival of death and rebirth, honoring their departed ancestors and something like the afterlife. To many indigenous Americans, death was seen as a continuance of life, a shift from one phase of being to another, like a butterfly reborn from a caterpillar’s cocoon. This powerful connection between the living and the dead persists at the core of today’s “Día de Muertos”, known in English as “The Day of the Dead”, celebrated throughout much of Mexico and the Southwestern United States on November 1st and 2nd every year.
Second…if the “Day of the Dead” is now two days, once it used to be a month.
The Spanish Conquistadors who stumbled upon the Aztec empire in the early 1500s would have witnessed some shocking funerary rites, but they wouldn’t have been so surprised if they knew these Day of the Dead facts.
The Aztecs made a month-long celebration of the cycle of life and death to coincide with the summer corn harvest and, holding real human skulls in hand, they paid homage to dead friends and relatives along with the Queen of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl. Then the Spanish fought to convert the Native population to Catholicism, and this is one reason why Día de Muertos is now celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively. Thankfully, many of the indigenous holiday traditions persist still today.
Following the Aztec tradition, skulls remain a vital part of Día de Muertos today, but thankfully for the squeamish, they’re mostly made of sugar.
Calaveritas (Spanish for “little skulls”) are in fact the traditional treat of Día de Muertos, and can often be seen also decorating altars and gravestones of lost loved ones throughout the holiday.
In many American celebrations, skull makeup and wooden masks are a must. Not by chance, considering the skeleton was used to symbolize the dead playfully mocking the living in ancient rituals.
About Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld who presided over their month-long death festival, she persists in today’s holiday under a slightly more modern costume.
In the early 1900s, Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada etched the image of a dapper lady skeleton in a luxurious European hat, harking back to the Aztec lady of death, herself. Now named “La Calavera Catrina”, the print was meant to poke fun at indigenous persons more enamored with European fashion than their own rich heritage. Over the decades, Catrina became a referential image of death in Mexico, and soon a representative of Día de Muertos itself. Today you can see her everywhere from Diego Rivera murals to handcrafted wooden dolls sold in curbside stalls.
If you’ve got a stocked picnic basket, a bottle of primo tequila, and your whole family by your side…time to hit the cemetery!
Today’s Día de Muertos is split between two days—November 1st, the Día de los Inocentes (or “Day of the Innocents”), which is reserved for honoring dead children, and November 2nd, the Día de los Muertos (or “Day of the Dead”), reserved for honoring dead.
Traditional events include cleaning the graves of loved ones, leaving offerings for their spirits (including their favorite foods and, often, tequila), decorating tombstones with marigolds (the traditional flower of the dead), and sitting with family to share humorous memories of the dear departed. In some parts of Mexico, families spend all night beside the graves of their relatives.
In any case, unlike Halloween, the ghosts should not be feared. Instead, spirits of deceased loved ones are truly welcomed into the home, but not without a big welcoming with the so-called ofrenda.
Ofrenda is the Spanish word for “offering”, and these offerings are set up on altars that have elements representing earth, wind, fire, and water.
Earth is represented by food, specifically pan de muertos, bread for the dead. Wind is represented through tissue paper that families decorate their altars with. Candles and water are set to display the last two elements, with the candles allowing light to lead the path for the dead. Though all ofrendas will have a section dedicated to God, what sets each family’s ofrenda apart are the personal possessions and photographs of the dead family members. As a way of honoring the dead, families place their loved one’s favorite items on the altar, like hats, toys, or instruments.
And did you know that you don’t have to go to Mexico to celebrate? In any city with a Mexican influence, you will find people who celebrate Día de Muertos. For istance, since 1990, the city of Tucson, Arizona has held an annual All Souls’ Procession on Día de Muertos, encouraging locals to join in a parade with painted faces and signs honoring the dead while a giant paper urn was filled with prayers and simbolically burned. In addition Santa Ana, California, host the country’s largest Día de Muertos celebration, drawing up to 40,000 participants….
Images from web- Google Research