Dia de los Muertos is Mexican for “Day of the Dead” and is a popular holiday observed all over Mexico especially in the central and southern parts.
It’s also celebrated by people of the Mexican origin living in other parts of the world. This festival is a 3-day event that stresses on family get-togethers and pay homage to deceased friends and family members.
The traditions of this day were added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in the year 2008. It is an annual festival starting on the 31st of October and continuing up to the 2nd of November which is the dates of Halloween, All Saint’s day and All Soul’s Day respectively.
It’s a public holiday in Mexico and this celebration is similar to other places and culture’s observances of occasions of honoring the dead. There’s a similar tradition in Spain as well which involves parades, family gatherings and cemetery visiting’s on this special day. This is a public holiday in Mexico since the 1960’s when the Mexican government introduced this holiday and made it a national one.
The origin of this modern Mexican holiday can be traced back to indigenous traditions performed hundreds of years ago. An Aztec festival which used to be celebrated in honor of goddess Mictecacuhuatl is also a deriving source of it and it used to fall in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar involving a whole month of celebrations.
It spread over the world through the years modifying the traditions performed to remember the dead. The pre-Columbian cultures gave way to the contemporary celebrations of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. The tradition of honoring the deceased ancestors has been carried out since as long as 2500 – 3000 years.
This festival grew and gained popularity and by the end of the 20th century, practices had developed further in most parts of Mexico. The 1st of November was designated to honor dead children and infants while the next day was devoted to deceased adults. Thus, November 1st is known as Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Angelitos( Day of the Little Angels) and November 2nd is called by the names Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos.
Customs And Beliefs
On this day, people visit the cemeteries and construct private altars for the dead known as ‘ofrendas’. These altars are filled with gifts and favorite foods and beverages of the deceased along with photos and memorabilia. The main aim is to please the spirits so that they are encouraged to visit them and listen to the prayers and things they wish to talk about.
During this three-day affair, people keep the graves clean and decorated and possessions of the departed are often left there. Treats like Calaveras are kept for the dead which are essentially edible sugar coated representation of human skulls. Mexican Marigolds are offered to the deceased on their graves. They are also called ‘Flor de Muerto’ (Flower of Dead) and are believed to attract the spirits.
For the spirits of dead children, toys and chocolates are brought while tequila, jars of atole are offered to the adult. After the festivities are over, the people eat the food that was offered to the spirits in the ofrendas. Also, pillows and blankets are laid out for the spirits signifying resting facilities for the spirits after their long journey. In places like Mixquic, Janitzio and Patzcuaro in Mexico, relatives actually stay all night beside the graves. Celebrants wear clothing with shells attached onto them in the belief that on dancing wearing such clothes, the shells will create some noise that will wake up the spirits.
The most prevalent symbol of this festival is the ‘skull’ that can be found on everything including masks, decorative items, models as well as food items. People also believe that keeping Day of the Dead souvenirs brings good luck and hence they indulge in buying dolls or sculptures of skeletons and making tattoos. Food items that are particularly consumed on this day are Pan de Muerto which is a sort of sweet roll shaped like a bun and sometimes decorated with skulls and bone like icings, Calaveras and Champurrado served with churros or tamales.
The traditional drink of this festival is the Atole but other beverages like Jamaica iced tea made from Jamaican hibiscus flowers and leaves are also popular. Another dish is the traditional Guatemalan salad called Fiambre that’s made up of more than 50 ingredients. The traditions and the celebrations of Dia de los Muertos is not the same everywhere and varies from town to town.