Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of Halloween. Recognized in 2008 by UNESCO on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Dia de los Muertos is a multi-day festival that honors death as a part of life, combining the observation of Catholic feasts with indigenous traditions. For the Aztec people death was not seen as an ending, but a beginning in the cycles of life and the seasons, for the Day of the Dead festival also marks the completion of the maize harvest. For the ancient Aztec, Toltec, Nahua and others it was believed that mourning the dead was disrespectful. Therefore, this festival, several thousand years old, is a joyous celebration of the lives of the deceased.
This celebration also happens to correlate with the Catholic feast of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. In Spain, families would visit cemeteries on November 1st to clean and decorate grave sites, setting out candles and food, and holding a wake until the morning of November 2nd. From the 1500’s to the early 1700’s, the Spanish colonizers in Mexico attempted to eradicate native beliefs and practices by destroying temples and building Catholic churches on their ruins. The modern-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos is a vivid example of cultural syncretism and the resilience of indigenous beliefs.
In many ways, the celebration of Dia de los Muertos is a reaffirmation of the strength of native cultures. In keeping with ancestral traditions, the dead are considered members of the community with the ability to temporarily return to Earth. One month before November 2nd a bell is rung in many communities to call the dead back to their homes. October 28th is the day of Accidentados or the return of those who have died in accidents. October 31st is the day of Los Angelitos or the souls of the children. November 1st is the day that the spirits of adults return to visit their families and on November 2nd they depart once again.
Many homes and cemeteries are adorned with numerous decorations and altars or ofrendas during Dia de los Muertos. There are many elements of an ofrenda, one of the most important being the offering of water to quench the thirst of the dead after their long journey back to Earth. Favorite foods and beverages are also offered. There is a family photo and candle displayed for each deceased relative. Marigolds or cempasúchil, which are thought to symbolize death, are placed in abundance on altars and gravesites to guide wandering souls back to their families. Copal incense, made from tree resin, is burned to purify the space and transmit prayers. A small plate of salt may also be placed on the altar for purification. An ofrenda is typically constructed of multiple levels, sometimes three, representing Earth, purgatory and heaven. An archway over the top of the altar provides a gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Pan de muerto is a sweet, round bread that is ubiquitous during Dia de los Muertos celebrations. In fact, there are over 400 types of pan de muerto prepared throughout Mexico during the festivities. Often flavored with anise, the bread is decorated with bones and skulls made of dough. Oaxaca, Mexico is known for a particularly special form of pan de muerto that is decorated with a carita or little face that is formed from dough and painted with vegetable-based colors. Oaxacan ofrendas (altars) will include displays of pan de muerto as well as the chocolate, fruit, and mole dishes (a sauce made from up to 40 ingredients) for which this region is famous.
Other delicious dishes and treats associated with the holiday include chicken prepared in rich sauces, tortillas, tamales and a variety of sweets. Sugar skulls were first created as part of the sugar art that was introduced to Mexico in the 17thcentury by Italian missionaries. Names of the departed and the living are written on the sugar skulls and enjoyed by all. It is thought that the pleasant sweetness becomes associated with the sadness of death, another means to accept death as a complex part of life.
Many traditional beverages are enjoyed during the festivities such as pulque made from fermented agave, atole made from corn flour, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla, and hot chocolate. Stronger drinks such as tequila and mezcal are also part of the celebration and are offered to departed souls as an invitation to relax and enjoy time with family members.
There are also political origins to some of the modern traditions associated with Dia de los Muertos. Calaveras, meaning skulls in Spanish, are part of a rich literary tradition associated with Day of the Dead. These satirical, humorous poems were first published in the 18thcentury in Mexico as a way to overcome media censorship. Calaveras, originally printed in newspapers, were written as sarcastic tombstone epitaphs commemorating the hypothetical death of a politician, celebrity, place, profession, or situation often accompanied by cartoon depictions of skeletons.
In the early twentieth century, Jose Guadalupe Posada created the Calavera Garbancera which was later referenced and named La Catrina (slang for “the rich”) by the master muralist Diego Rivera in 1947. Posada’s La Catrina depicted a female skeleton dressed in fancy French clothing with the caption, “Todos somos calaveras” meaning underneath we are all skeletons. This image was a social commentary on the upper class or those who emulated European fashions, but eventually became known as an iconic image of death in Mexican culture.
Today La Catrina is emblematic of the images and costumes most often associated with Dia de los Muertos. To learn more about these art and craft traditions check out the Dia de los Muertos Altar craft kit.