This is the time of year that various cultures have holidays and celebrations to honor and remember the dearly departed. Two days ago, it was All Hallow’s Eve (a.k.a. Halloween), yesterday was All Saints’ Day, today is All Souls’ Day. I celebrated Día de los Muertos, known to English speakers as Day of the Dead, today and yesterday. The traditionally Mexican holiday begins on November 1 and ends on November 2, combining All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
In most regions of Mexico, November 1st is to honor deceased infants and children, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2nd. The former is known as Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) and Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). The latter is referred to as Día de los Muertos and Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead).
Catrinas, one of the most popular figures of Dia de los Muertos, represent the Lady of the Dead.
This holiday finds its roots in paganism. The Catholic Church created All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day near Samhain as one way to convert pagans. There is also pagan ancestry from Mexico itself. Rituals honoring deceased ancestors have been observed by the indigenous pagan cultures in present-day Mexico for as long as 3,000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, skulls were commonly kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
On the Aztec calendar, the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month (about the beginning of August). It was celebrated for the entire month. The Lady of the Dead, a goddess, was the one who the festivities were dedicated to.
The skull, specifically sugar skull, is the common symbol of this holiday. In Spanish, skull is calavera. People wear skull masks, called calacas. Some of the holiday’s traditional food are sugar or chocolate skulls (for both the living and the dead) and pan de muerto. Pan de muerto is a sweet egg bread made in various shapes.
People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.
An altar for Day of the Dead
Families will offer trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. The ofrendas are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the spiritual essence of the ofrendas food, so though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In many places, people have picnics at the grave site too.
Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes. They usually have crucifixes, statues or pictures of the Virgin Mary, pictures of the dead loved ones, candles and ofrendas. Families tend to spend time at these altars or shrines praying and telling stories about the dead.
Have a blessed Dia de los Muertos! May all of your ancestors and friends rest in peace!