When faced with the loss of a loved one, the grief that occurs is especially upsetting due to the permanence of the situation. However, for individuals in Mexico and other Latin American countries, there is a holiday where that permanence becomes a bit less permanent, which is a cause for celebration that can give you some relief from your grief. That unique holiday is known as the Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos, as it is called in Spanish.
Origins of The Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead has roots stretching deep into history by about 3000 years back to rituals of the Aztecs, Toltecs and other Nahua people living in what we now consider central Mexico. These rituals were a result of their view that death was always present - not as a terrifying or mysterious prospect but as a necessary part of life.
Upon dying, these ancient people believed that a person’s soul would travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead where he or she would then face a difficult journey of several years before his or her soul reached Mictlán, the final resting place.
In their rituals to honor the dead, family members provided food, water and tools to assist in the journey. This is what inspired the food and offerings people leave for their deceased loved ones in current Day of the Dead practices both on graves and homemade altars called ofrendas in their homes.
When the Spanish arrived on the scene, they thought the tradition was sacrilegious, but in an unexpected turn of events, the Day of the Dead began to incorporate elements of Christianity, which is why the date was changed from the original summertime celebration to coincide with the dates of All Souls Day and All Saints Day in the fall.
What is The Day of the Dead?
Coinciding with the ancient belief that much in the way crops grow from the same ground where last year’s crop is buried, death is entwined with life in an inescapable, cyclic way, instead of a negative way.
The Day of the Dead is a multi-day festival meant to honor and celebrate the deceased and welcome them back to the world of the living. During the Day of the Dead, it is believed that the borders between the worlds of the living and dead dissolve. The festivities of this celebration are enjoyed by the souls of the dead who are feasting, dancing and drinking as honored guests with their living relatives.
A popular dance during the celebration is called La Danza de Los Viejitos, which means the dance of the little old men. During this dance, boys and young men dress as old men and walk around hunched over then suddenly jump up and begin to boogey in a delightful, energetic shuffle.
The Day of the Dead is all about death, but instead of being spooky and scary like Halloween, the celebration is a day of connection with one’s deceased relatives, beautiful colors and fun. It is a happy celebration of love and affection for those who have left this world. There is no sorrow present during these celebrations because sadness could be interpreted as being disrespectful to the deceased relatives who are happy to be visiting.
Although relatives can’t see the dead, they can sense their presence, and while people visit the cemetery, they typically leave their doors open on the chance that a stranger may bring a loved one’s spirit home.
When and Where
The Day of the Dead begins at midnight on October 31, when the souls of deceased children are believed to come back to the world of the living to reunite with their families for 24 hours on November 1, and the souls of the deceased adults are believed to return for their visits on November 2.
During this celebration, people in Mexico tidy up relatives’ graves by snipping weeds, painting, making repairs and decorating with flowers, wreaths and paper streamers. Candles and incense are burned to help the deceased make his or her way home.
Many people stay at the cemetery for an overnight visit. People also construct the ofrendas, which are temporary altars, as a reminder of their deceased loved ones. On November 2, relatives gather to reminisce at the grave-site, and this sometimes involves tequila and mariachis. This time is important for sharing memories and stories to commemorate the dead.
Day of the Dead Details
The Day of the Dead is a feast for the senses with vibrant colors, tastes and sounds. During these celebrations, which consist of parades and parties of singing and dancing, those in attendance wear makeup and costumes and make offerings to their deceased loved ones.
Sugar Skulls of the Dead
Even people who are mostly unfamiliar with the Day of the Dead often recognize the sugar skulls and skeletons commonly associated with the celebration, though they may not know the association. The calaveras (skulls) appear everywhere during the holiday as sweets, masks and dolls.
The sugar skulls are made from a sugar mixture that is pressed into a mold then left to dry. Once dry, at least 24 hours later, the sugar skulls are decorated with brightly colored icing, foil, ribbon, feathers and more.
The skulls are beautiful and often feature hand-painted swirls and whimsical, flower-like designs. When decorating for the festivities, colors have meanings such as yellow represents death, purple is for grief and white is for purity.
On November 1, smaller sugar skulls are placed on the ofrendas or graves to remember the children who have passed on. Then on November 2, the smaller skulls are replaced with larger decorative sugar skulls for the adults who have passed on.
José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator, created illustrations of skeletons as satirical caricatures of the wealthy. One of these illustrations nicknamed Catrina wore a hat and long dress and became a symbol of the Day of the Dead. Unfortunately, this recognition happened after Posado passed away in obscurity in 1913.
One of the quotes associated with Posada is, “Todos somos calaveras,” which means we are all skeletons. The sentiment coincides with the belief that life and death are cyclical for us all, and underneath our clothes, we are all the same frame with no one being beyond death’s reach.
Flowers of the Dead
Flowers figure prominently during the Day of the Dead, and the most important flower is the marigold. The marigold that is commonly used is the Targetes erecta, Mexican marigold or Aztec marigold, also known as cempasuchitl or flower of the dead.
Marigolds are often placed on ofrendas and around graves. The strong, almost pungent fragrance and bright colors of the petals are thought to attract the spirits and lead them from the cemetery to the family’s home during the celebrations. Afterward, the petals are scattered from the altar to the gravesite to lead the spirits back to where they rest.
In addition to the important role they play, marigolds are also edible and have been used for food and medicinal purposes since antiquity.
Other flowers that may accompany marigolds are cockscomb flowers. Like marigolds, cockscomb flowers have a strong scent, and they often decorate the altars or tombstones of the dearly departed.
Other flowers coincide with a Day of the Dead arrangement like baby’s breath, hoary stock, cockscomb, gladiolus and chrysanthemums. Also, one should keep in mind that since the importance of this holiday lies in celebrating the memories of loved ones who have passed and leaving out offerings of things they liked, you can also opt to choose a flower that was favored by someone you have loved and lost.
Whether you want traditional Day of the Dead flowers or an arrangement your loved one would have adored, our florists at 1-800-Flowers Greenrose in Phoenix, AZ, can help you find the perfect arrangement to celebrate the memories of those you have lost.
Altars of the Dead
An important part of Day of the Dead celebrations is the altar or ofrenda. This temporary altar is not meant for worship. These altars are for welcoming the visiting spirits and honoring deceased loved ones with mementos, photographs and items that they enjoyed or that represent their lives. If one of the spirits is a child, there may be toys on the altar.
The ofrenda is decorated with candy, flowers and the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, as well as pan de muerto, which is a slightly sweet bread made specifically for the celebration. A washbasin and towel are sometimes left out for the dead to cleanse themselves before enjoying the feast.
The four elements of wind, water, earth and fire are part of the ofrenda. The wind is symbolized by paper banners called papel picado while water in a pitcher is not just a representation of water itself, but it is also there because the spirits arrive thirsty. Bread and other foods symbolize earth. Lastly, candles represent fire and are lit so the spirits can find their way.
Butterflies of the Dead
Millions of butterflies stream into central Mexico, and their arrival is precisely timed to the three days of Dia de Los Muertos. Because of the timing and the meaning associated with the holiday, the monarch butterflies are now regarded as the souls of the departed returning to earth for their yearly visits.
The Day of the Dead is a celebration that has evolved, but the substance of the celebration and the beliefs behind it remain meaningful. This holiday still resonates with the people of Mexican heritage who celebrate it, even after thousands of years passing.
Although it is about death, the Day of the Dead is not dark or morbid. It is about celebrating the memories and love we still have for those who have passed. This holiday also allows people to see death in a more positive way when we consider the belief in the cyclical nature of things.
When you look at it that way, death almost feels natural, like it’s just another step in one’s journey, and really, when you think about the deceased being able to come by for a visit, death certainly feels a bit less threatening and a little less sad.