The Day of the Dead
On November 2, 2019, Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, begins throughout Mexico and for people of Mexican heritage around the world. The multi-day holiday brings family and friends together to remember the dead and support them in their spiritual journey.
Día de los Muertos is a fascinating holiday. In 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, added the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, cementing Day of the Dead as a living expression and tradition of the Mexican people.
The holiday has its roots in Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people from thousands of years ago, where these groups believed that mourning the dead was disrespectful and wrong. They saw death as a natural means, and they believed that the dead were still members of their community. The belief is that they are kept alive in memory and in spirit, and during Day of the Dead, they temporarily return to earth.
Altars of the Dead
This is why Mexicans during this time create an altar of sorts known as an ofrenda, which serves as a meeting place for the living and the dead. These altars are commonly found in homes and cemeteries, and the living set up pictures of their loved ones who have passed away, with candles representing each person being remembered. Things that are often left at the altar are water to quench the thirst of the dead after their long journey, various foods to remind them of some of their favorites, and small toys for children who unfortunately passed away to play with. Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate as well.
Streets Full of Skulls
During Day of the Dead, the streets and people are decorated in skulls, also known as calavera. This part of the tradition came to prominence in the early 19th century thanks to some humorous poems published in newspapers making fun of the living.
Later, a Mexican political cartoonist named José Guadalupe Posada created images to go along with these literary calavera, which portrayed the dead as fancy dressed skeletons, a huge visual influence in what has made Day of the Dead what it is today.
Thanks to the influence of ancestors and these artists of the past couple hundred years, the holiday has become a giant party celebrating and remembering the lives of the dead and embracing the idea of death itself and not fearing it.
It is quite the social event, and the streets and public squares are filled to the brim all day and all night. People of all ages paint their faces like skeletons and don fancy suits and beautiful dresses. Many of the attendees wear shells or other noisemakers to further the excitement and also to keep the dead's attention and have them close to the fun.
The Heart of Día de los Muertos
Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of Halloween. Though some similarities may seem present, the two annual holidays differ tremendously in tone, heart, and tradition. Day of the Dead's festivities unfold over two days – November 2 and 3 this year – in an explosion of color, excitement, and life-affirming joy. I mean, sure, the theme may be death, but that is not the point. It is a demonstration of love and respect for the deceased, and in towns and cities all throughout Mexico, people hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost family members and friends as they remember and celebrate.
The traditions are rife with meaning and symbolism, and the more you understand about this explosion of fun, color, and remembrance, the more you will appreciate it.