Once Halloween’s trick-or-treaters are tucked safely into bed in the U.S., Mexico’s dead prepare to walk the earth again. On El Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, officially observed on November 1st and 2nd, Mexico pays tribute to the souls of their beloved deceased with lavish, kitsch-filled ceremonies featuring skeletons and sugar skulls decorated in floral regalia.
Few countries pay homage to death the way Mexicans do. Throughout its history that very macabre humor has created memorable depictions of the holiday in pop culture ranging from Diego Rivera’s painting “The Day of the Dead” to the animated film The Book of Life (2014).
What inspired this sweet, yet morbid tradition that is said to date back to the Aztecs? Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by pre-Columbian civilizations for as long as 2500–3000 years. According to the Myths Encyclopedia, it’s connected to the ancient belief that people’s personalities and needs continue unchanged after death. This is why the custom of burying possessions and useful objects with the dead was so common. It’s believed that if the dead are, say, in a foul mood, they will harm the living unless ceremonies are performed to keep them from doing so. Mexicans, it seems, keep their dead happy or else fear the revengeful consequences.
So when did this ritual take notice outside of Meso-America? According to The Arizona Republic’s Carlos Miller, more than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now central Mexico, they encountered “natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate,” writes Miller.
Originally, the Day of the Dead fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar (around the beginning of August), and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess of the underworld and the keeper of bones, Mictecacihuatl. Since Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed their dead came back to visit them during this month, they made wooden skulls in their honor to place on altars.
Mexico’s pre-Columbian cultures viewed death as the continuation of life, a perfect cycle. Instead of fearing death as the Spaniards did, they embraced it. And that creeped out the Europeans who considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. Over the years the Spanish conquistadors tried to eradicate the ritual through conversion to Catholicism. Ultimately, to make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved the holiday so it coincided with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it’s celebrated today.
How to Authentically Celebrate Day of the Dead
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In our modern times, families still gather to celebrate their dead by building altars in their homes, schools or other public places. Many honor them with gifts of sugar skulls, chocolate, flowers, sweetbreads, and trinkets. At local cemeteries, families can also be seen delivering ofrendas, or offerings, while carrying candles and photos of their deceased in hand.
One important thing to remember is that this is not a time to mourn or feel particularly sad, but a time to celebrate the life of your departed loved ones in a positive way. It’s a time to feel grateful for their contribution to your life. You can start by setting up an altar in your home and decorating it with candles, photos, and various objects that belonged to or represent a deceased loved one somehow. For example, if your father enjoyed eating marzipan treats, set a few on the altar for him. Mexicans families offer their deceased gifts to connect with them again. Add flowers to your altar to liven it up. The Marigold flower, known as Cempazuchitl in Mexico, is a popular flower that families place on altars and gravesites for Day of the Dead.
It’s All About Calaveras
The famous Calavera makeup is a very important visual symbol during Día de Los Muertos festivities. These skulls are not intended to macabre or scary in any way. On the contrary, the skulls are applied to the face using very colorful paint and are meant to represent our mortality in a united way. Hey, we all end up dead, no matter our social status. Perhaps Day of the Dead in the 20th century is best associated with La Calavera Catrina, a painting by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada that was created between 1910 and 1913. According to ABC News, La Catrina was a selfish, greedy rich woman who did nothing to help the poor. Many now mock her every year by dressing in ornate garb, painting their faces white and detailing features to look like a caricature of a skeleton. So go ahead and paint your face during the Day of the Dead festivities but remember, this isn’t a Halloween mask and you should take time to create an authentic calavera look. Take a look at some photographs online for some inspirations.
Another way to inspire creativity and memories of our deceased is with a bit of tequila, pulque or mescal, which are popular choices during Día de Los Muertos. Look online for some traditional recipes and try to keep it real with authentic Mexican cuisine. Although it remains a Mexican national holiday, Day of the Dead extends well beyond to Latin America, Spain and Mexican-American communities in the U.S. For some it’s actually a three-day holiday beginning on October 31st, All Hallows Eve when it’s believed the souls of young children arise at midnight. On the following days, adult souls are said to walk the earth. Be kind to your dead, my friends; they need to know they are still loved.