The very word strikes a chord of fear in most of us. It is an ending, an inescapable fate, a thing that bears grief and misery in its tattered hands.
But not everyone sees death so.
Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—runs from October 31st to November 2nd, and is celebrated throughout Latin America, and in many other countries, including the United States. Originating in Mexico, the Day of the Dead is the liveliest celebration of death in the world.
This holiday is a descendant of the ancient traditions of the Aztecs, who dedicated an entire month to a goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead”. Over time, these antique rites melded with the Catholicism brought to Mexico by Spanish conquistadores, merging it into the same days as All Soul’s Day and All Saints Day, minor Catholic holidays. And like these Catholic holidays, it is a time to honor the dead.
As such, the Day of the Dead is not merely an acknowledgement of death, but a celebration of the lives of those who have passed on—those departed loved ones wouldn’t want their families and friends to sit about and mope. They’d want the living to remember them in happiness and celebration!
And that’s just what the Day of the Dead is all about. October 31st, and November 1st and 2nd are known, collectively, as the Days of the Dead. At midnight, on the 31st of October, it is believed that the gates of heaven are opened, and that the spirits of the dead can then mingle with the living.
During the first day of the holiday, known as “el Dia de los innocents”, the young create children’s’ altars to invite the “angelitos”—spirits of deceased children—to come and visit. November 1st is All Saints Day, when the adult spirits come to move amongst the living, while November 2nd is All Souls Day, when families head to the cemeteries to decorate the gravesites of their loved ones.
While at these gravesites, families build private altars to their deceased, which often contain the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, as well as trinkets, photos, and other small items that are connected to the spirit. Although the food is eaten afterward, many people believe that the spirits of the dead consume the incorporeal essence of the foods left out for them, and that these foods no longer have any nutritional value after this.
All of these enticing items are left out in order to encourage the soul of the departed family member or friend to come visit, so that they might behold the prayers and loving words of the living—in this, the interlacing of native and Christian traditions becomes most apparent. In some areas of Mexico, revelers even spend the night beside the graves of their loved ones.
The graves are often decorated with orange Mexican marigolds, which are sometimes called Flor de Muerto—the Flower of the Dead, which are said to attract souls of the dead. Also left are sugar skulls and candied pumpkin—also called “bread of the dead”.
Speaking of sugar skulls, it is interesting to note that, because Mexico is so abundant in sugar production and was, historically, too poor to import European church decorations, the nation quickly learned how to make sugar art for their religious festivals. Today, these skulls are often hand-molded, and candy makers work for up to 6 months prior to the holiday so that enough stock can be on hand for sales.
You might think that this would be a somber time, but no—this is a celebration of life! Humor abounds as families recount stories and hilarious escapades. This is a time for remembering the good and the funny, the love and the life.
Some families build altars in their homes, usually consisting of a cross, pictures of the Virgin Mary, and pictures of the deceased relative. These are usually covered with multitudes of candles.
This tradition even extends into public schools and government offices, where altars are also built, although these generally leave forego the religious symbols.
The most recognizable symbols of the Day of the Dead are the calacas and the calaeras—skeletons and skulls—which are everywhere during the celebrations. These skeletal figures are often portrayed in humorous situations, enjoying life to the fullest, decked out in fancy clothing.
The symbolism is very telling. Skulls and skeletons are the face, so to speak, of the Day of the Dead. Beyond the obvious association with death, the fact that these skeletons usually well-dressed hints, good-naturedly, at the fact that death is the great equalizer. No matter how wealthy, fashionable, beautiful, or powerful we are, we all succumb to the hand of fate.
But beyond that, their appearance in a lighthearted festival is a healthy acceptance of death as an inevitable part of life. Death can be a scary subject, so treating it in a lighthearted way takes away some of its sting, some of its terror. The Day of the Dead is the antidote to our fear of mortality—we look it in the face, and we laugh.
The Day of the Dead also brings comfort through a maintained connection with deceased loved ones, fostering the hope that there is something after death, and that, just maybe, those ones we held so dear in life are still out there, somewhere.
So this November, even if the Day of the Dead isn’t a tradition in your region or family, take heed of this holiday’s theme. Think of those you’ve lost, and consider the wonder and beauty of their lives. Speak a positive word to them.
After all, they’d want you to be happy.