The first of November begins the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) festivities. Its roots can be traced back to indigenous cultures. The Aztecs had a celebration in the ninth month of their calendar with a celebration to their goddess Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead,” later depicted as La Catarina. Souls did not die they rested in Mictlan.
After the Spaniards colonized Mexico, they moved the celebration to coincide with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day. These holy days originated to honor and remember deceased children and All Souls Day on November 2, is for the remembrance of adults. The Aztec ancestral tradition then blended with Catholicism to create a special time and space to remember and honor the loved ones.
The day is not meant to be scary or somber although the symbol of the day is the skull or calavera. It is a time of remembrance, of honoring those who passed, and of revisiting memories. For many people this is a time of healing with tears, laughter, stories and music. The traditions and activities that take place in the celebration of the DoD are not universal and often vary from town to town.
Day of the Dead (DoD) celebrations in the United States is said to have begun in Tucson and Los Angeles in 1990 and by 2010 had spread to several more cities including the Midwest. Many Latin American countries hold similar observances for the dead as well as some Asian and African cultures.
The spirits of the deceased are thought to pay a visit to their families during DoD and the families prepare an altar for them. The altar is used to hold offerings, or ofrendas, for the departed. Their favorite foods, photos, and mementos are often placed on the altar together with items the deceased enjoyed: toys, candy, liquor, hobbies, etc. A bar of soap, towel, bowl of water and other grooming items are traditionally left at the altar with the belief that the dead have been on a long journey and would like to refresh themselves. Pan de Huevo in the shape of skulls and pumpkin candy are often enjoyed at these commemorations.
The four elements: wind, water, earth and fire are represented on the altar. Wind is sometimes signified by papel picado that moves in the breeze. Candles depict fire, food represents earth, and liquids represent water. The cempasuchitl (Mexican Marigold) is an Aztec tradition, which says that the twenty-petal flower attracts souls to the altars.
In the last ten years, Day of the Dead celebrations include both traditional and political elements, such as altars to honor the victims of the Iraq War. There are updated, inter-cultural versions of the Day of the Dead such as the event at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Whichever way you honor your loved ones and those who have departed, may you have a memorable Dia de los Muertos.
*The photo came from article written by Bernice Olivas. Visit her column and read her story “Santiago” on her first Dia de Los Muertos in Idaho–it’s pretty darn good.