Day of the Dead (or Dia de los Muertos) is one Mexican and Central American festival that’s become very popular around the world. While the holiday is primarily viewed as a Mexican celebration, it is widely observed in Mexican-American communities and acknowledged internationally in many other cultures. Variations of the festival are celebrated in Ecuador, Brazil (Finados), and Belize (Day of the Skulls), where locals have a tradition of adorning the skulls of their dead relatives with fresh flowers.
But those who don’t traditionally celebrate it often don’t know much about Day of the Dead, or think it’s something like Halloween. We’re here to make sure you’ve got the basics on this holiday that’s meant to help celebrate life.
What Is Day of the Dead?
It’s not meant to be frightening
This holiday’s name and traditional symbols like skulls, skeletons, and scary masks might bring a horror movie to mind initially. Fear not! Day of the Dead is not meant to be frightening, quite the opposite. This two-day Mexican celebration does commemorate deceased relatives, encouraging the living to pray for their dead ancestors’ spiritual journeys. But it is also a celebration of life meant to help people grieve together and remember the good things in life.
On one hand, it’s a somber festival with a deep meaning rooted in grieving. On the other hand, humor and hope are part of the celebration, and help defy fear of death during life. People celebrating Day of the Dead see death as a reason for a colorful celebration. They eat delicious sugar skulls as a reminder that death is a sweet continuation of life. Day of the Dead does occur around the same time as Halloween, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day. But the mood is different, with an emphasis on celebrating ancestors’ lives, rather than fearing evil spirits.
When Is the Day Of The Dead
Two day Fiesta
Day of the Dead coincides with Catholic celebrations of All Saint’s Day (November 1st) and All Soul’s Day (November 2nd) and takes place during both days. Many believe the children’s souls return to earth on November 1st (Day of the Innocents), and adult spirits follow them the next day (Day of the Dead).
Celebrants plan for the festival throughout the year, and gather offerings to give to dead loved ones. Families usually start cleaning and decorating their loved ones’ graves a day before the festival. These decorations include toys for deceased children (little angels) and bottles of tequila or other spirits for adults. Yellow marigolds are also offered because they represent life and hope. They are believed to attract the dead souls toward the gifts.
Day Of The Dead Origin
History Of The Views on Death
Day of the Dead celebrations can be tracked back over 3,000 years ago. Aztecs, Mayans, and other indigenous people of Central America performed rituals to celebrate dead ancestors. Festivities lasted the entire month of August (the 9th month of the Aztec Solar Calendar). They were dedicated to a goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead.” People kept skulls as a symbol of death and rebirth, and displayed them during these rituals with other offerings.
Day Of The Dead History
The Catholic Influence
The Spanish Conquistadors came to Central America in the 16th century. The indigenous traditions and rituals they perceived as mocking death horrified them. The Conquistadors attempted to squash the holiday and convert the people to Catholicism. They moved the Day of the Dead celebration to coincide with Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. Their efforts to conquer were thorough, but they could not eradicate the essence of Dia de los Muertos. Instead, the Catholic doctrine was assimilated with native beliefs to create new traditions. The festival’s date changed, but it retains many elements of its roots.
Day Of The Dead Traditions
Different Ways of Accepting Death
Specific Day of the Dead activities often vary from place to place across Mexico and Central America. What’s necessary is celebrating dead loved ones’ lives, and accepting death with a sense of adventure. One important Day of the Dead tradition is to set up an altar in memory of the deceased. It should include the four elements of nature – water, air, fire (candles), and earth (flowers). The altar’s offerings usually include the dead ancestors’ favorite foods and “dead bread” (Pan de Muertos). Bread of the Dead is a sweet egg bread made in many shapes, from plain rounds to skulls. Sugar skulls are very popular as well. Each one represents a departed soul, and they have the dead ancestors’ names written on their foreheads. Though sugar skulls are tasty, they are meant to adorn altars and be a sweet delight for visiting spirits.
Another tradition is dressing up in colorful costumes, with skull and devil masks, and dancing together through the neighborhood. Participating in colorful parades is many celebrants’ favorite part.
A final way to defying death is to write short limericks (calaveras) making fun of the deceased. These poems are believed to have originated in the late 18th century. The authors typically describe dead loved ones’ weird habits, and remember funny stories about their lives.
You know what the Day of the Dead really is. Now get ready for the celebration!
Hopefully Dia de Muertos feels a little more approachable and understandable. Support your friends and family that are celebrating it with gifts of food, liquor, and flowers. At least send your warm wishes and encouragement. Whatever you do, remember the blend of humor and respect makes this holiday a healing event.
– Help loved ones celebrate the festival by sending them a sweet gift basket for The Day of the Dead.
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– Enjoying this topic? Keep reading about Our Favorite Haunted Places Around the World.
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