Although the meaning and purpose of the Day of the Dead has remained mostly unchanged over the years, how it is celebrated has evolved considerably. Today, it is essentially a social event, albeit tainted to some degree by commercialism and any old excuse for a lively family get-together.
But the ancient festival of the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead in spanish), dates back to pre-Hispanic Mexican times. Those times the living would gather to remember the Dead, to communicate with souls of the departed and to celebrate the continuity of life.
In ancient times, however, the Day of the Dead was celebrated during the summer months on the Aztec calendar, which roughly coincided with sometime in July or August on the Gregorian calendar. After the Spanish conquest, the Christian rulers moved the date of the festival to the first two days in November in an attempt to Christianize this ancient tradition.
Where is Day of the Dead celebrated?
Where did Dia de los Muertos originate? The Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico, with celebrations varying from region to region. Festivities are generally more lavish in traditional rural localities than in densely populated, urban areas.
How do people celebrate day of the dead
Many modern cultures tend to avoid the subject of death because of their associations with sorrow, finality, and loss. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth among the indigenous population of Mexico. Here, physical death is viewed as part of the natural cycle of life and a joyous event to be celebrated.
According to the late Octavio Paz, writer and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize, death, or la Muerte, is a cause for celebration. Paz, who was born in Mexico City, and joined the dead, on April 19th, 1998, was comfortable with the notion of death. He even personified death as a being that one “…chases after…hugs,” and is a “…most lasting love.”
Day of the Dead traditional activities
The main activity of the festival centers upon welcoming the dead back into the homes of the living; the Day of the Dead also involves lively graveside reunions with the souls of the dead.
According to tradition, the first day of celebrations is dedicated to children who have passed on to the spirit world, and is sometimes referred to as the Day of the Little Angels (Dia de los Angelitos); the second day of the festivities revolves around the adult dead.
Traditionally, a feast is served on the morning of the second Day of the Dead. Today, however, a typical celebration might consist of a specially prepared supper with bread baked in the shape of skeletons or other forms with a death motif.
From mid-October onwards, shops and market stalls across Mexico are laden with artifacts and trinkets in preparation for the Day of the Dead celebrations. These include baked goodies made with sugar, chocolate or amaranth seeds in the shape of skeletons. Other popular offerings on sale (ofreda de Muertos) include wreaths made from silk flowers, candles, miniature coffins and skulls, and fresh flowers, especially marigolds.
Families exchange gifts of sugar skeletons, or trinkets with death motifs, such as skulls and skeletons engraved with the recipient’s name.
Day of the Dead altars in honor of the dead are set up in homes and adorned with specific items designed to appeal to the dead such as photographs and personal treasures.
In the days leading up to the Day of the Dead, families, and friends smarten up the burial sites, weed around gravesides and decorate the graves with flowers and offerings for the dead.
Special delicacies are prepared, and alcoholic beverages are offered to entice the dead to partake in the festivities, both in homes and at gravesides.
It is not uncommon to see people telling stories and communicating with the dead.
Did you know that…
…it is customary to bake special loaves (pan de Muerto) for the Day of the Dead containing lucky toy skeletons? The person who bites into the piece of bread containing the skeleton is considered the lucky one!
Day of the Dead: useful terms and phrases
- Dia de los Muertos: Day of the Dead
- Ofreda de Muertos: Offering to the Dead
- Dia de los Angelitos: Day of the Little Angels (traditionally the first day of the festival)
- La Muerte: Personification of Death, the main reason why do people celebrate Day of the Dead
- Pan de Muerto: Bread of the Dead (a rich egg-battered bread served to celebrate the Day of the Dead).