The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous cultures. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2,500.3,000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, it was common to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the god known as the “Lady of the Dead”, corresponding to the modern Catrina.
In most regions of Mexico, November 1 honors children and infants, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1 mainly as DĂde los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) but also as DĂde los Angelitos (“Day of the Little Angels”) and November 2 as DĂde los Muertos or DĂde los Difuntos (“Day of the Dead”).
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 that 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.
Plans for the day are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods to be offered to the dead. During the three-day period, families usually clean and decorate graves; most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas (“offerings”), which often include orange mexican marigolds (Tagetes erecta) called cempasĂşl (originally named cempoalxochitl, Nahuatl for “twenty flowers”).
In modern Mexico, this name is sometimes replaced with the term Flor de Muerto (“Flower of the Dead”). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings.
Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or “the little angels”), and bottles of tequila, mezcal or pulque or jars of atole for adults. Families will also 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 even though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so that the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, PĂˇcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In many places, people have picnics at the grave site as well.
Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes; these usually have the Christian cross, statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other persons, scores of candles and an ofrenda. Traditionally, families spend some time around the altar, praying and telling anecdotes about the deceased. In some locations, celebrants wear shells on their clothing, so that when they dance, the noise will wake up the dead; some will also dress up as the deceased.
Public schools at all levels build altars with ofrendas, usually omitting the religious symbols. Government offices usually have at least a small altar, as this holiday is seen as important to the Mexican heritage.
Those with a distinctive talent for writing sometimes create short poems, called calaveras (“skulls”), mocking epitaphs of friends, describing interesting habits and attitudes or funny anecdotes. This custom originated in the 18th or 19th century, after a newspaper published a poem narrating a dream of a cemetery in the future, “and all of us were dead”, proceeding to “read” the tombstones. Newspapers dedicate calaveras to public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of the famous calaveras of JosĂ©uadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator. Theatrical presentations of Don Juan Tenorio by JosĂ©orrilla (1817.1893) are also traditional on this day.
In many American communities with Mexican residents, Day of the Dead celebrations are held that are very similar to those held in Mexico. In some of these communities, such as in Texas and Arizona, the celebrations tend to be mostly traditional. For example, the All Souls Procession has been an annual Tucson event since 1990. The event combines elements of traditional Day of the Dead celebrations with those of pagan harvest festivals. People wearing masks carry signs honoring the dead and an urn in which people can place slips of paper with prayers on them to be burned.
In other communities, interactions between Mexican traditions and American culture are resulting in celebrations in which Mexican traditions are being extended to make artistic or sometimes political statements. For example, in Los Angeles, California, the Self Help Graphics & Art Mexican-American cultural center presents an annual Day of the Dead celebration that includes both traditional and political elements, such as altars to honor the victims of the Iraq War highlighting the high casualty rate among Latino soldiers. An updated, inter-cultural version of the Day of the Dead is also evolving at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. There, in a mixture of Mexican traditions and Hollywood hip, conventional altars are set up side-by-side with altars to Jayne Mansfield and Johnny Ramone. Colorful native dancers and music intermix with performance artists, while sly pranksters play on traditional themes.
Similar traditional and inter-cultural updating of Mexican celebrations is occurring in San Francisco, for example, through the GalerĂde la Raza, SomArts Cultural Center, Mission Cultural Center, de Young Museum and altars at Garfield Square by the Marigold Project. Oakland is home to Corazon Del Pueblo in the Fruitvale district. Corazon Del Pueblo has a shop offering handcrafted Mexican gifts and a museum devoted to Day of the Dead artifacts. In Missoula, Montana, skeletal celebrants on stilts, novelty bicycles, and skis parade through town. It also occurs annually at historic Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Sponsored by Forest Hills Educational Trust and the folkloric performance group La PiĂ±, the Day of the Dead celebration celebrates the cycle of life and death. People bring offerings of flowers, photos, mementos, and food for their departed loved ones, which they place at an elaborately and colorfully decorated altar. A program of traditional music and dance also accompanies the community event.
Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos is a series of commemorative days dedicated to those who have died. It is celebrated generally between Halloween, Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, and coincides with the Catholic holy days of All Saints (Nov. 1) and All Souls (Nov. 2).
Day of the Dead is actually divided into two distinct holidays, the first being Dide los Inocentes, which is dedicated to children on Nov. 1, and Dide los Muertos on Nov. 2, which is the actual Day of the Dead. Both days taken together are collectively referred to as the Day of the Dead, and celebrations can begin as early as Halloween (Oct. 31).
In recent years, the tradition has spread into North America, particularly into communities with large Mexican and Latin American populations. The holiday blends with celebrations across several nations and cultures and draws upon traditions found in other cultures, however the holiday is largely a Mexican development.
Families often come together over this period and preparations can be made during the entire year leading up to the Day of the Dead. This is a solemn occasion, with few actual festivities. Instead, people visit and repair graves of their dearly departed. It is common to light candles, leave offerings of prepared foods, often a favorite meal, and to pray and play music. Private altars are built as focal points for small, private religious observances. Small parties, or wakes, can be held in conjunction with the holidays. Celebrations can sometimes take a humorous tone, particularly if the deceased relative was known to enjoy humor. Poems can be read and public morality plays are sometimes performed.
Suggestions from Tribe Partner CaHerbanLife.com
has listed two traditional recipes for the Day of the Dead Celebrations and a unique aromatherapy DIY for you to access anytime and make for your alter. Honor the dead, this Dia De Los Muertos.
Pan de Muertos (Bread of the dead) is a sweet bread enjoyed during the time of Dia de los Muertos. Because the bread is made as an offering, the shape is important. The unique shape is said to represent the bones of the dead
The skull is a common symbol of the holiday, and it is common for women to paint all or one-half of their face with a skull. Dia de los Muertos is an occasion to pray for these departed people in purgatory. Prepare this aromatherapy blend as a blessing to the departed in your private alter.