Día de los Muertos Celebrates Life
Each year on November 1 and 2 a cultural traditional brings families together in a festival of honor. These are the Day of the Dead: Día de los Innocetes (innocents, children) and Día de los Muertos (deceased, adults).
The primarily Mexican and Latin American ritual is steeped in history. Décor, activities and feast reinforce that our loved ones are to be honored, remembered and remain spiritually alive. From its Pre-columbian roots, Day of the Dead rises from Aztec and Roman Catholic beliefs. Because it is an annual event, the ongoing ritual means death is more readily seen as a natural aspect of the life cycle.
“Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Día de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Día de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Día de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.” ~National Geographic
Households and communities may each have slightly differing traditions in their locale. Events might be held at the cemetery, community center or homes. But what is in common is that Día de los Muertos activities “encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them.” (Wikipedia). Sharing of stories, feast and offerings, grave and headstone upkeep are all part of the rituals that may go on for up to three days.
The cost for food, drink and offerings can be expensive for rural indigenous households. Some families spend over two month’s earnings to honor their deceased. “They believe that happy spirits will provide protection, good luck and wisdom to their families. Ofrenda [altar] building keeps the family close.” (Mexican Sugar Skull)
Here are some of the most often noted symbols and activities found at Día de los Muertos celebrations:
- Ofrenda. (altars) Small, personal altars honoring one person. Ofrendas have flowers, candles, food, drinks, photos, and personal mementos of the person being remembered. Ofrendas often include religious statues and pictures. They can be very elaborate.
- Marigolds. It is thought the orange color of Mexican marigolds help attract the soul to the offering table. Buckets of flowers are left with the altar, or used to decorate the tables and displays.
- Orchids. White orchids are the flower given in honor of children who have died. Día de los Innocetes may also be noted as Día de los Angelitos, Day of the Little Angels, on November 1, when the children are allowed to visit their families for 24 hours beginning midnight October 31.
- Gifts. Food and gifts that the loved one enjoyed are part of the altar and festivities. This includes toys, trinkets and candies. Pillows and blankets may be left at the ofrenda so souls can rest after their long journey. Tequilia and mezcal may be left for the adults. The food is for the souls, so although eaten by the living, it is thought to be devoid of nutritional value.
- Catrinas. The popular dressed skeleton figure is highly associated with Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. The icon originated from a satirical etching by Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada, circa 1910. La Calavera Catrina (Elegant Skull) depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a hat befitting the upper class outfit of a European of her time.
- Calavera (skull) Decorated sugar skulls and chocolate skulls are also distinctly recognized on Día de los Muertos. The skull may be given as a gift to both living and dead. The recipient’s name is often inscribed on the forehead of the skull. The sweet candy is a balance to the bitterness of death.
- Papel Picado. Hand cut paper banners have been traced back to the 18th century used for religious festivals to decorate the streets. Day of the Dead papel picado usually depict happy scenes (of skeletons) to embellish the surroundings.
Story is always at the heart of Día de los Muertos celebrations as family and friends write poems, share anecdotes, or even mocking epitaphs. Through laughter and joy, the symbols presented in this shared tradition honor the life of loved ones passed and even what the loved one loved about life. Today, Day of the Dead events are becoming community events beyond Mexico borders as a way to share heritage, culture and of course, honor the deceased loved ones of all ages. Check your local community calendars to see if you can join in this rich and inviting tradition.