Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday spread across Latin America celebrating the union life and death. For many cultures, death can be very sad and even scary, but Mexican culture embraces a light humor and joy in celebrating the lives and memories of those who have died before us. It is not viewed as the end of life, but a step into the next phase of living, into the afterlife.
Remembering the dead and living a life full of loved one’s who’ll remember your influence are important cultural focuses of Dia de Muertos, but there is so much culture at every turn in this special holiday.
Originally it seems that it was celebrated in the summer, but as conquistadors came and Christianity spread, Dia de Muertos was connected with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. So it moved to be celebrated at the same time. Note: they are not the same. Even more recently, Dia de Muertos celebrations begin as early as October 31st and go through November 2nd in many places to also overlap/include Halloween and Samhain.
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Who still celebrates Day of the Dead?
As was mentioned, Day of the Dead seems to have originated from Indigenous peoples of Mexico, but has spread throughout Latino countries and cultures. All over Central and South America, as well as other large Latino communities in Los Angeles, Tucson, San Antonio, and more!
Remembering that this is a sacred holiday as you learn about it is very important, because people do not celebrate Día de Muertos because it is cool, colorful, and fashionable. It is celebrated to remember the dearly departed and cling to a cultural heritage wherein certain types of mourning the dead is an insult to their passing, but learning to celebrate the life lived with hopes of an afterlife together are seen as strength!
What are some of the symbols we can see during Day of the Dead celebrations?
The Ofrenda / Alter
The alter is the center of the celebration as a place where the living family and spirits of the deceased can mingle over pictures, favorite foods and other memories and things related to the person who has passed on.
This cross can be made of lime salt and its original purpose was probably not your first thought. With the spread of Western Christianity, the cross has of course been adapted in almost every scenario to represent the Christ’s suffering. In modern Mexican culture, Catholicism plays a huge role. So yes, its a cross. But traditionally, indigenous people used this cross for indicating the cardinal directions. A way to guide us all on our journey.
These are usually made of tissue paper, folded in half to get a symmetric image. That folding the paper in half and the symmetry of it are what makes it reflective of the union of life and death, putting the two sides together. And the designs that some people manage to cut out of that tissue paper are incredible when strung.
Pan de Muerto
Bread for the dead, as I like to call it, is a sweet offering to the deceased to be placed on the ofrenda. Designs of tear drops and/or bones are created on top of the bread to represent those who have passed.
These flowers are said to guide the dead with their beautiful color and scent, so families leave trails of marigold petals to the ofrenda in hopes to help their loved ones’ spirits arrive to the fiesta without any problems.
Calaveras / Skulls
This one seems pretty self-explanatory. Again, it represents the deceased. Skulls are everywhere. Sugar skulls, Catrina dolls, Catrina face painting and costumes, skulls on the pan de muerto, skulls in the papel picado. In Mexico, it is actually not uncommon to even gift a sugar skull to a friend with their name on it, suggesting that they will have a place on your ofrenda one day and you’ll always remember them. It’s kind of a light and humorous take on death that the culture embraces. Many jokes are made but what they’re really saying with that gift we’re all going to die one day, but if you die first I’ll make sure you’re remembered.
Candles and Torches
Isn’t it interesting the way many cultures use the word “burning” (Spanish “ardiente”) as both a description for something really hot, and for something very intense. Here, the flame is a symbol of deep love.
What kind of fiesta would it be without food?! Smell, interestingly enough, is the strongest sense associated with memory. When you smell a loved one’s favorite food, it’s likely to make you feel like you’re right back at the table eating with them again. Perhaps, intuitively, people have always recognized that. And so of course, food is left on that alter to guide the dead with its smell and bring that feeling of truly being together again.
Even the layers of the ofrenda itself can be significant! Each layer represents the steps between heaven or hell and Earth up to 7 levels.
Toys, instruments, tools, books and other favorite things of the deceased might also be placed on the ofrenda to invite the spirit to come and know that they’ve been remembered well.
What does a typical Día de Muertos look like?
Pay attention especially to when he says that it’s both exciting and sad that Day of the Dead is becoming more “mainstream”. Talk about why he feels this way and how as we learn about it, we can keep from “washing it out” and appropriating the beautiful and sacred cultural tradition.
What does he do first to get ready for the day? Does he work on this day? What game will he play? Who will he spend the day with? Who is on his ofrenda and how does he make the ofrenda special for that person? These are all questions to consider while watching and would make for an excellent mini lesson / discussion with a child of any age!
Does your family traditionally celebrate Día de Muertos? We would LOVE to collaborate and share what a typical celebration of this holiday in your home looks like! Message me at email@example.com or scroll below to “Leave a Reply”.