Día de Muertos (also known as El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead in English) is one of my favorite holidays. During the festival, families invite their departed loved ones back to join the celebrations with the living. Families decorate commemorative tables, called ofrendas (literally offerings though in English they are usually referred to as altars), with photos of the deceased, candles, flowers, and more.
They host celebrations in the cemeteries for their dead. People dress up as skeletons, share food, and enjoy the music and dance. While the theme of the holiday is death, it is a joyful festival; celebrating life while honoring death. People who celebrate this holiday view death as the next stage, a natural part of the cycle rather than something to be feared. During the Day of the Dead, the families are reunited with their deceased loved ones, and party as if they were still alive.
The Day of the Dead festival is actually three days long.
The first day is preparatory, and it is not always considered an official part of the holiday as a result. On this day, families decorate the ofrenda. Children, in particular, decorate an orenda dedicated to the spirits of deceased children, who they call angelitos or little angels.
The 1st of November is the Día de los Inocentes or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Innocents or the Day of the Little Angels). This day is dedicated to honoring the spirits of deceased children.
The 2nd of November is the Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (The Day of the Dead or Day of the Deceased). It is dedicated to adult spirits. On this third day, families go to the cemeteries and decorate the graves with flowers, candles, and other decorations. They offer food and drink for the deceased. The Day of the Dead is a joyous party, with festive foods and drinks, music, and dancing.
While the Day of the Dead begins the same day as Halloween, it is not a Mexican Halloween.
Despite certain similarities, the Day of the Dead and Halloween developed independently from very different cultural traditions. Halloween came from the Celtic festival of Samhain, later called All Hallow’s Eve. Samhain is a night when the border between our world and the world of spirits becomes thin. These spirits are frightening, even dangerous. The bonfires, costumes, and Jack-o’-lanterns developed as traditions to scare them away.
The Day of the Dead comes from the indigenous traditions of central and southern Mexico, including the Aztecs, Toltecs, and Maya. Unlike Halloween, the spirits crossing the border between life and death are loved ones. The day is about reuniting with them. The dead are invited to share in the celebrations. While the holiday recognizes the inevitability of death, it is primarily a celebration of the continuity of life.
The origins of the Day of the Dead trace back to an Aztec celebration honoring the Goddess Mictecacihuatl.
Mictecacihuatl is the Queen of the Dead and wife of the King of the Underworld, Miclantecuhtl. According to Aztec lore, she is the guardian of the bones of the dead. These bones were needed to create new living beings. Thus, she stole the bones from Miclantecuhtl and used them to create new lives. Once a year, during the summer, she emerged from the underworld to make sure that the bones she protected, now in the form of the living, were being cared for. The Aztecs honored her return with dances and festivals, celebrating not death but the unbroken flow of life. Life and death acted as a continuing cycle rather than death being seen as an end. They saw mourning the dead as an insult to the dead, whose bones were the source of future new life.
The Day of the Dead moved to November after the arrival of the Spanish, who forcibly introduced Catholicism to the indigenous people. Among other Cathollic traditions, the Spanish introduced All Saints’ Day (1 November) and All Souls’ Day (2 November). These days honor the Christian deceased. The Spanish, in large part because of their experiences during the Black Death, had a much darker view of death. They celebrated All Souls’ Day by going to the cemeteries and decorating them with flowers. They lit candles in memory of the dead and brought wine and pan de ánimas, or spirit bread.
The newly Christianized indigenous people blended their Day of the Dead festivities with Catholic traditions, a process called syncretism. In the process, many of their older traditions, including offerings of food, drink, decorations, dances, and costumes, translated into Catholic festivities.
Día de Muertos over time became connected with indigenous identity.
While the indigenous people in northern Mexico have different traditions for honoring their dead. For the indigenous people of central and southern Mexico, the Day of the Dead became a celebration of their heritage as well as their dead. Just as the death of one’s family and friends is not the end, the holiday represented the continuation of indigenous culture. The indigenous people and their history are not gone. They adapted and changed and continue to be present and relevant today. So important, in fact, is the Day of the Dead to indigenous culture and identity that UNESCO has added the festival to their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
More recently, The Day of the Dead celebrations have been seen in popular media. In particular, the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre and the 2017 Pixar film Coco, brought the festivities international attention. As a result, celebrations of Day of the Dead have spread. They have become a celebration of the diverse history of Mexico as a whole as well as of individual indigenous cultures.
From the bones of the past, the present and future are being built.
at The Researcher’s Gateway
Explore our other post on this holiday
- Why I love the Day of the Dead Celebrations
- Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead
- Holidays Around the World