It’s only been in the past few years that most Americans have become aware of a traditional Latino holiday that has been celebrated for hundreds of years. The Day of the Dead, Dia de Muertos in Spanish, is one of the biggest Mexican holidays now celebrated and celebrations are becoming more common in areas of the United States with a large Hispanic population. It is also recognized in many other South American cultures.
The holiday, sometimes called Día de los Muertos, is a two-day celebration which features family get-togethers to pray for and remember relatives and friends who have died, and to help support their spiritual journey. Now that Day of the Dead decorations are in mainstream stores, it’s important to understand Day of the Dead traditions to appreciate the holiday, usually celebrated November 1 and 2.
Historians believe that the origins of this holiday dates back 2,500 to 3,000 years ago to a month-long Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. It used to be celebrated in the summer, but over time, after Catholic Spaniards colonized Mexico, it gradually was associated with the Christian All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day observances in the fall. This holiday has now spread throughout the world, being absorbed within other deep traditions for honoring the dead. The Day of the Dead helps people accept and deal with the familiarity of death without dread or fear.
The Mexican people believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.
Traditions connected with the holiday include the following:
- Throughout the year, families collect the goods to be offered to the dead; the intent of the gifts are to entice the souls to visit to hear the prayers and comments of the living honoring them
- During the holiday period, families go to cemetaries to be with the souls of their departed; they clean and decorate the graves and build private altars.
- Decorations can include papel picado (garlands of tissue paper cutouts) and orange Mexican marigolds–these “flowers of the dead” are thought to attract the souls of the dead to the offerings.
- Toys are brought for dead children and bottles of tequila, mezcal or pulque or jars of atole for adults. Toys and food, including breads and candies, are created in the shape of symbols of death such as skulls and skeletons. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave.
- Families also build shrines at home with altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased with their favorite foods and drinks as well as photographs and possessions of the dead.
- Ofrendas may have a Christian cross, statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, photographs of the deceased loved ones and many candles.
- Families spend time around the altar, praying and telling anecdotes about the deceased. Humor is encouraged in the sharing of family stories about the departed.
- Some people believe possessing Day of the Dead items can bring good luck. Many people get tattoos or have dolls of the dead to carry with them.
- In some areas, family members wear shells on their clothing, so when they dance, the noise will wake up the dead; some will also dress up as the deceased.
- In certain villages, pillows and blankets are left out so the deceased can rest after their long journey. People sometimes spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In many places, people have picnics at the grave site, as well. Family members play cards, tell stories, read satirical poems about their friends and listen to town musicians play folk music.
- Special foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (a sweet egg bread made in different shapes), and sugar skulls; and beverages such as atole are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased.
- A popular symbol of the holiday is the skull, which celebrants represent in masks, figures, plaques 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.
You may adapt some of these Day of the Dead traditions for your own celebration of family. Different areas of the country have different festivities like parades, candlelight vigils, music and dancing in native costumes, graveyard picnics, costume parties with guests dressed like skeletons and more. Check to see if your community has a Day of the Dead celebration you can attend. You can learn more about this cultural experience and have fun at the same time!