'Dia de los muertos' or Day of the dead has a strong presence all over Mexico. It is a festival of generosity celebrated to honor the deceased loved ones. Roots of this celebration dates back to almost 3000 years since Mesoamerican traditions. The day of the dead relates dead person with their living ones. This holiday starts on October 31st every year and lasts up to November 2nd. In between these days, November 1st is All Saints Day celebrated in commemoration of the deceased children. All souls Day is celebrated on 2nd November to welcome the spirits of the adult departed souls.
The tradition of celebrating Dia de los muertos originated in Mexico and is followed throughout Latin America. Indigenous Aztec rituals combined with Catholicism were first brought to Mexico by the Spanish adventurers. This culture tries to compensate the painful moment of death of a loved one with sarcasm and mockery. It is a humorous attitude towards death and teaches that death is necessary in order to have life.
Occurrence of death is a certainty and this is clear when we age or when we lose a loved one. In Mexico and Latin American culture, celebration of death is like a party where alters called ‘ofrendas’ are set up with collection of favorite personal belongings of the deceased person. An altar is set up with favorite food, light alcoholics and activities of that individual person. There are many remarkable symbols of the Day of the dead one of which is Sugar skull called ‘Calaveras’ or skeleton called ‘Calacas’. These Calaveras appear as candied sweets, dolls and parade puppets or masks during Dia de los muertos. Mexicans portray these Calacas and Calaveras in fancy clothing and entertaining situations to put an end to grief and bring a smile to peoples face. The dead are thought to awaken from their eternal sleep on this day and celebrate with their loved ones.
Family members clean and decorate the gravesites with Marigolds and other Calaveras or Sugar Skull themed embellishments. Some families also have a picnic and musical festivals at the gravesite while others wait at their adorned homes and alter setting for their faithful departed ones to visit. The sole idea is to pamper the departed souls with their favorite meals and activities because Mexicans believe this tradition strengthens their bond and develops a personal relationship with their departed loved ones. According to Mexicans, Dia de los muertos awakens the dead within ourselves and portrays that death in evident and dead people do exist even if they have died.
Symbols and traditions associated with Day of the dead:
- Cempasuchil- Marigolds which are also known as the flower of the dead. These flowers are believed to attract the souls of the dead to the altars.
- Papel Picado- A decorative perforated delicate paper with cut out designs. Different colors signify different meanings.
- Calacas- Skeletons to depict joyful moments
- Calaveras or sugar skulls- Skulls made from sugar and chocolate formed into a dessert or candy given as gifts. The skulls are inscribed with the name of the living and not the dead.
- Sataric Poems- Poems are written for the deceased in a funny and interesting way. In Mexican schools children are taught to write poems for this day.
- Ofrenda- Home altar containing belongings such as pictures, personal items, marigold flowers, candles and favorite meals of the dead.
- Bread of the dead (Pan de Muerto)- A special kind of bread which has a circle at the top representing the skull and the other circles representing bones.
- Candles- Four candles to represent the four cardinal points are placed on a cross to allow the spirit to find its way from the cemetery to the house.
- Copal- A tree resin believed to free the house off the evil spirits and allow the spirit of the dead to enter.
- Water and salt- Offered to purify the soul and quench their thirst when they first enter the house.