TULUM, Mexico – The Day of the Dead, or “Día de Muertos” in Spanish, is one of Mexico’s most significant and cherished celebrations. With roots that trace back thousands of years, long before the arrival of the Spanish, it has evolved into a unique blend of Catholic tradition and Mexican mysticism. This commemoration sees death as an integral part of life and provides a means to remember and honor loved ones who have passed away.
In bustling market stalls, one can find intricately decorated sugar or chocolate skulls, while delicate paper cutouts adorn shops and restaurants. In homes across the country, families carefully place photographs of their ancestors on altars alongside candles and traditional Mexican bread, while the scent of copal incense fills the air. Flower shops proudly display freshly cut marigolds, known as “cempasúchiles,” in their windows.
This tradition has been an integral part of Mexican culture for generations, but in recent years, it has also become a significant tourist attraction. Travelers from around the world visit towns and cities throughout Mexico to witness the vibrant events and offerings, which are the altars created to invite the spirits of the deceased back to the world of the living.
Even though this celebration has made appearances in Oscar-winning films and big corporate commercials, for Mexicans, it remains an intimate family tradition. It’s a time to remember and honor those who are no longer with us and to welcome them back to our homes, even if just for one night. In a country where violence and tragedy have become all too common, it’s also a reminder of Mexico’s ability to find humor even in the face of death.
When is the Day of the Dead?
The Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 2nd when it is believed that the souls of the departed return to the world of the living. However, the festivities typically begin on October 28th, with each day dedicated to a different type of death, such as those who died in accidents or young children who passed away before being baptized. November 1st is All Saints’ Day, honoring those who led virtuous lives, especially children.
Who Celebrates the Day of the Dead?
While primarily a Mexican tradition, other Catholic countries around the world also honor the deceased. In the Philippines, families visit the graves of the departed, bringing flowers and lighting candles. Brazil has Dia de Finados, and in many countries, including the United States, November 2nd is recognized as All Souls’ Day, a time when Catholics remember and pray for the deceased.
Where Did the Day of the Dead Originate?
The celebration has its roots in indigenous cultures dating back thousands of years, particularly influenced by the Aztecs or Mexicas. In Aztec culture, death was seen as a temporary state, and the souls of the departed could return to visit the living. At least two significant autumn festivals honored the dead and invited them back to the world of the living. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they merged these traditions with the Catholic calendar, aligning the celebrations with All Souls’ Day.
How is the Day of the Dead Celebrated?
While the specific customs vary from region to region, some elements are universal. People typically place photos of their deceased loved ones on an altar, along with their favorite foods and drinks. In some areas, like the state of Morelos, families open their doors to anyone who wishes to view their altars and offer visitors traditional “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead) and “atole,” a corn-based drink. On November 2nd, many families visit cemeteries, bringing flowers, candles, and other offerings to the graves.
As the popularity of the Day of the Dead has grown worldwide, thanks to Hollywood films like “Coco” and “The Book of Life,” the festivities have become more numerous and elaborate.
Following the James Bond film “Spectre” in 2015, which featured a colorful Day of the Dead parade in the heart of Mexico City, the city authorities organized their version with dancers in vibrant costumes and floats adorned with giant skulls. The parade has become a significant tourist attraction for the Mexican capital, drawing 2.6 million people in 2019.
In the United States, cities with large Mexican populations, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Antonio, also hold celebrations, including parades, exhibitions, and street fairs.
What Elements Are Included in the Offering?
The “ofrenda” or altar for the dead typically has multiple levels. Two-tiered altars symbolize the earth and the sky, while three-tiered altars can represent the sky, the earth, and purgatory. Seven-tiered altars symbolize the seven steps to the afterlife or the seven deadly sins.
Each offering includes elements representing the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Ashes usually symbolize the earth, a glass of water helps quench the spirits’ thirst after their long journey, and elaborately cut tissue paper often represents the air. Candles represent fire and guide the dead back home. The offerings also include small sugar or chocolate skulls, as well as the traditional “pan de muerto.” Some people place figurines of a dog or a toy dog and a woven palm mat or “petate” for the souls to rest. It’s essential to include food, drinks, and other items that were significant to the departed, along with burning copal, a type of incense used for purification.
What Flowers Are Used in the Offering?
The most important flower is the marigold, known as “cempasúchil” or “caléndula.” Its bright yellow petals are said to represent the sun and act as a guide for the souls of the deceased to return home. Other important flowers include the “velo de novia” or “nube” (veil of the bride or cloud), representing purity, and the “flor de terciopelo” (velvet flower), also known as “mano de león” or “cresta de gallo.” Its bright red color adds a colorful touch to the offerings.
What Is Pan de Muerto?
Pan de Muerto, or “bread of the dead,” is a significant Mexican tradition during the Day of the Dead celebrations. It is placed on the altar as an offering and is also a delicious treat eaten throughout October. Like much of this celebration, this bread has its roots in the ancient Aztec culture when various types of traditional bread were used as offerings. It is round, with a pair of crossed bones and a circle on top representing a skull made of dough. The texture is similar to challah bread and is typically sprinkled with sugar and other toppings.
The Day of the Dead is a vibrant and culturally rich celebration that beautifully merges tradition, mysticism, and remembrance. As it continues to captivate people around the world, it stands as a testament to Mexico’s enduring ability to embrace life, even in the face of death.