Dia de Los Muertos, also known as Day of The Dead, is a Mexican holiday where the souls of the deceased are invited to briefly reunite with their living loved ones. This holiday takes place annually from October 31st to November 2nd. This celebration is dedicated to the dead, those who have passed on, & the spirit world. It is meant to recognize both life & death, exchanging mourning for honor & celebration. This short homecoming typically includes food, drink, music, gifts, & celebration.
The origin of Day of the Dead goes back approximately 3,000 years ago. The rituals & traditions of honoring the deceased are celebrated in Mexico & by those of Mexican heritage. The Aztecs & other indigenous groups strongly believed that life has universal cycles full of transformation, one of them being death & its integral part of life. It is believed that upon death, the person's spirit then travels to the “Land of the Dead”, where they then go through years of challenges & journeys to ultimately reach their final resting place. This is where the living relatives that honor these rituals, will provide food, drinks, & tools to aid the deceased in their journey. This belief is what inspired the tradition of leaving food & other offerings on loved ones' graves or altars during this holiday.
Traditionally, the celebration begins at midnight on the 31st. This is when the “gates” into the spirit world are considered to be open. The belief behind this holiday is that the barrier between the spirit world & real world dissolves, allowing the spirits to awaken & return to the real world to feast, drink, dance, & play music with their live relatives. The living treat the spirits as honored guests & welcome them with a personalized ofrenda. The first day of this celebration is dedicated to the spirits of children known as Dia de los Angelitos, or “Day of the Little Angels”. The second day known as Dia de los Difuntos, or “Day of the Deceased”, is when the spirits of adults are given the opportunity to make their appearance.
"OUR DEAD ARE NEVER DEAD TO US,
UNTIL WE HAVE FORGOTTEN THEM."
~ GEORGE ELIOT
This holiday is popularly recognized with calacas (skeletons) & calaveras (skulls). This symbol originally came from the art piece called La Calavera Catrina made by José Guadalupe Posada, a printmaker & illustrator from the early 1900’s. La Calavera Catrina, also known as “The Elegant Skull”, is a female skeleton adorned in fancy clothes & makeup; making her the famous icon that we know as the sugar skull. Many cultures honor the festivities & parades of Day of the Dead by wearing skull masks or makeup, & dressing in traditional hispanic clothing or headpieces.
A large part of this holiday includes making a personalized shrine for the deceased that we wish to remember. These altars are called ofrendas, they are set up in the families home to help the soul of the deceased find their way back to their family. These altars include pictures of those who passed as well as paper decorations, flowers, candles, & figurines. In a traditional ofrenda, the picture & personal items of the deceased are placed above or at the center of all of the offerings, with the decor being made up of bright vivid colors.
The offerings left on these personal altars are left to encourage the spirits to come visit the real world as they hear their loved ones prayers, smell their favorite foods, & enjoy the celebrations honoring their lives.
Some of the gifts offered include:
Knick knacks, games, figurines, toys or other small gifts
Food such as fruit, sweet bread, tortillas, tamales, mole, & other favorite foods of the deceased
Drinks like atole, chocolate, wine, liquor, or water
Flowers such as marigolds, white roses, or vibrant colored flowers
Paper decorations known as papel picado & paper marigolds
Candles, incense sticks, smudge sticks, or herbs
Sugar Skulls or other calavera themed items
Pets & animals can also be observed during these sacred days. Just as an ofrenda would be made for the spirits of adults & children, one could also be made for our furry friends that have crossed the rainbow bridge. Laying out a picture of a beloved pet along with their favorite toys, treats, beds, collars, & leashes is what would be commonly seen for a pet altar. Departed pets are depicted as alebrijes, vibrant mystical creatures known as “spirit animals” that can help guide the spirits of the dead on their journey.
Traditions & their Symbolism:
Marigolds: Marigolds are known as the Flor de Cempasúchi or the Flor de Muerto, the “Flower of the Dead”. These flowers are recognized as a pathway that guides the spirits back to their homes. It is believed that the vibrant color & floral scent attracts the dead to their ofrendas. Marigolds are respected as symbolizing the beauty & fragility of life.
Ofrenda: Making a personal collection of the deceased in which we honor them & their lives is a grand part of this holiday, & it holds the most meaning.
Calaveras or Skulls: Known as the main icons & symbols, the skulls are made with smiles, as to laugh at death. This represents the belief that death is just a normal & respected part of the life cycle. Typically the skulls are presented in the form of sugar skulls, clay figures, decor, & face paintings.
Pan de Muerto: This is a type of pan dulce, or sweet bread, only sold in the weeks leading up to Dia de los Muertos. The bread is a sugar dusted, sweet, buttery loaf with hints of citrus orange & anise. Many bakeries will make this pastry in shapes of bones or skulls to represent the holiday & the name itself, “Bread of the Dead”. This bread is an essential part of the holiday, usually being placed on altars, in baskets or set out openly outdoors. It is meant to nourish the dead when they return back to the “Land of the Dead” after the celebration ends.
Candles: The altars & shrines are often filled with multiple candles that are meant to constantly stay lit throughout the two-day celebration. Since the spirits come during the night, the candles are there for the purpose of providing a warm glow, illuminating their way & the offerings set out to honor them. The flames are meant to light the way for the spirits to guide them home.
Incense & Smudging: Incense, smudge sticks, blends, herbs, & cones are burned to purify the home & souls of the spirits. They also uplift the prayers of the living when they call out to their departed.
Papel Picado: Translated to “cut paper”, this is traditionally bright colored tissue paper that is hand cut in various designs & made into banners. It can be popularly recognized as Mexican folk art, but is considered essential when decorating a home for Dia de los Muertos.
Seeds & Grains: Seeds & grains in this tradition is meant to symbolize the element of Earth. They are typically laid out in bowls or even spread around the floor of the altar. This element has a grounding nature to tie the souls' remembrance back to Earth.
Soap & Water: Bowls of water, bars of soap, towels, perfume, oils, & mirrors are left out for the spirits to “bathe” & keep clean during their visit. Pitchers of water are also left out for the souls to quench their thirst after their long journey in the afterlife.
Toys & Games: Dolls, games & knick knacks are typically placed out for the spirits of the children, but can also be gifted to deceased adults. It is a way to remember them for their childlike innocence & to call them back home with their favorite items. The most common items seen are authentic Mexican rag dolls, Loteria, maracas, pirinolas, trompos, baleros, & many other handmade wooden toys.
These sacred days of celebration are dedicated to remembering the dead, their legacy, & their memories. It is a time meant to recognize & honor both life & death, exchanging mourning for admiration, appreciation, & ceremony. Many of us have experienced loss in our lives, but the belief that death is a normal part of our life cycle is one that is honored & held to the highest of respects. These days are important for coming together as family & friends, spreading love & jubilee to our loved ones all around us, both in the real world & spirit world.