Skulls and streamers line the streets, and graveyards become seas of festive colors. The intoxicating smell of rich, tasty foods fill the air, and all around is music and laughter. It is late in October; perhaps this is all just show for that upcoming holiday, Halloween, but there is something more, something ritualistic and traditional about everything, from the decorations to the activities. It is perhaps one of the most widely celebrated, and sometimes most confusing, aspects of Mexican culture. It is an integral part of the Mexican identity, and it has been for thousands of years.
It is El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
Traditionally speaking, the Day of the Dead is a ritual day that sprung from the Aztec culture over 3,000 years ago, and it used to take place in what would have been late July, early August. It was a month long celebration honoring the dead, and the living, presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead, who was believed to have died at birth. In the 1500s, the Spaniards came to Mexico, and with their coming, they tried to eradicate the heathen gods and rituals, including the Aztec Day of the Dead. Upon discovering that they could not suppress the Aztec beliefs, the Spaniards tried to incorporate them into Catholicism by moving the holiday to November 1st and 2nd, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively, in the Catholic calendar.
The Spaniards may have convinced the Aztecs to move the day of their rituals, but they could not kill the spirit with which the native people celebrated them, and it still continues today. Though the various regions of Mexico, Central America and parts of the United States observe El Día de los Muertos differently, the basis for the ritual day, the belief in the duality of life and death, remains no matter where you go. The idea of celebrating death is strange, but the Mexican peoples have always felt that death is merely an extension of life, something natural and unavoidable, but it is not an end. Yes, mourn the dead and miss them, but know that once a year, they will return to visit, families will be reunited, and then there can be great celebration.
The term “Day of the Dead” is misleading, as the festivities do not now, nor have they ever, merely encompassed a single day. While the primary merriment activities last from October 31st through November 2nd, there are other events to honor the dead that start a few days earlier. Those who died in accidents, suicides, homicides or other violent deaths are remembered on the 28th, the unbaptized on the 29th, and the lonely souls on the 30th.
As with most festivals in the Mexican culture, the coming of El Día de los Muertos means crafts, decoration and, of course, food. Many of the crafts are familiar favorites of Hispanics, including paper flowers and papel picado (Mexican art of paper cutting). Altars are often erected within homes to decorate with pictures, candles and food to honor the deceased, and gravesites are festively decorated, as well, with flowers, streamers and more food as offerings to those who’ve passed away. The food placed as offering takes all kinds of forms, from the favorite dish of the departed, to the special pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, and usually, a beverage of some sort (often tequila for adults). Among the various activities that take place during the celebrations for the Day of the Dead are a dance in which participants dress as skeletons, and picnics at gravesites.
Though many outside the Mexican culture consider El Día de los Muertos to be very dark and macabre, there is far more to it. These days are a time for families to come together and remember their dearly departed, to visit and walk with the ones who have left them behind for the world that lies beyond. It’s a beautiful celebration of death and life.