Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is considered to be one of the world’s most unique holidays. Celebrated in Mexico, Dia De Los Muertos is a three-day holiday to honor and remember loved ones who have passed on. It begins October 31st and goes through the 2nd of November. Though there are similar holidays in Brazil, Spain, and many other countries (including our own Halloween), none quite encompass the originality and passion behind this phenomenal holiday.
Like many traditions in Mexico, Day of the Dead’s origins can be traced back far before any Spanish influence. Celebrations honoring the dead have taken place in many regions in Mexico for as long as 3,000 years. Indigenous cultures in the pre-Hispanic era celebrated a similar holiday that took place in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar (right around August). Instead of the three-day celebration we know today, these rituals would take place for an entire month. The aim was to honor those who had passed before them, as well as honoring the God referred to as the Lady of the Dead. This icon is still seen today in Mexican tradition, we know her as Catrina.
Catrina dolls are a common sight during Dia De Los Muertos, and popular throughout the year as well. Along with Catrina dolls, sugar skulls and marigolds are also displayed. November 1st is known in most regions as Dia De Los Innocentes, or ‘day of the innocents’. On this day children who have been lost are especially honored by their families and loved ones. It can also be referred to as Dia De Los Angelitos, or ‘day of the little angels’.
Keeping in mind that this is a celebratory holiday, not one of mourning, tequila is a likely sight amongst shrines and in cemeteries. Often, a bottle of the deceased’s favorite type of tequila, mescal, or pulque is shared among the family in order to honor the dearly departed and celebrate their life. Other popular offerings include memorabilia of the departed, photos, trinkets, and in the case of small children, favorite candies or cakes. Pumpkin bread (known as pan del muerto, or ‘bread of the dead’) is also a very popular choice for children and adults alike.
Along with offerings to the dead, or ofrendas, short poems or pieces of prose are also common. Most are light-hearted or even humorous containing anecdotes or fond memories of the loved one. These poems are known as calaveras (coincidentally the word also translates to skulls). This particular tradition traces back to the 18th century. Today, pictures of skeletons commonly accompany the calaveras in the traditional style of the well-known Mexican illustrator, Jose Guadalupe Posada.
All offerings are given to invite the spirits to visit their loved ones on these cherished days. Although the celebrants later consume the food and drinks themselves, it is believed that any nutritional value passes on to the spirits. Other traditions include sleeping in the graveyard next to the altars, or dancing in the graveyard wearing traditional shells tied to the clothing in order to wake the dead.
Public schools and government offices are not exempt from the celebrations. Shrines and altars are not only found in private homes, but schools and offices as well. The tradition of Dia De Los Muertos is sacred to the Mexican people. It is more than just a holiday; it is part of their heritage.