Come the beginning of November, Mexican families throw a feast and invite the dead over for dinner. Though Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is often confused with Halloween due to the proximity in time, this holiday is not about ghouls and goblins, but instead honors the dead and welcomes their souls home as a blessing.
Altars and offerings are a way to remember family members who have passed into the afterlife. In this culture, the lines between life and death are blurred and the acceptance of mortality becomes a liberation from fear. Indeed, life and death live on parallel planes in Mexico. This beautiful festival has a profound life lesson that transcends life itself.
This celebration dates back 3000 years, long before Spanish influence in the region. Today’s festival is a mix of pre-Columbian customs and Christian teachings. Aztecs believed that life and death coexist, and during the fall the dead can visit the living. Death is merely a gateway to the underworld, an accession of consciousness and a rebirth into a higher state. Christianity fused this native ritual with All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd) to put its own religious spin on it. In the predominantly Catholic Mexico, graveyards and crosses are intertwined with powerful Aztec symbols such as skulls. Similar celebrations occur throughout the world, including Todos Los Santos in the Philippines and Dia de Finados in Brazil.
While death can often be a somber affair, the Day of the Dead is a joyous celebration of life. For some, it can be perceived as morbid with dark undertones. However, the underlying themes are love, remembrance and honor. Dia de los Muertos is an acceptance of death in place of mourning life lost, a celebration of life lived. It helps families and children come to terms with death, perhaps life’s greatest unknown and fear.
Arcs of brightly colored marigolds provide a spiritual welcome mat and represent a gateway to the underworld.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico, the United States and other countries with large Mexican populations. Its artistic and cultural influence is also spreading worldwide. The festival takes place over three days. October 31 is a day of preparation. Gender roles are more traditionally defined in rural Mexico and women perform the housecleaning and food preparation, while men build clay altars in the home. November 1 is dedicated to children and infants, Dia de los Angelitios (Day of the Little Angels). Offerings of candies and favorite toys are placed at the altars in the hope that the spirits will absorb the essence and be nourished for their journey back to the underworld. November 2, Dia de los Muertos, is for the adults. Calaveras (decorated skulls) are bigger and more elaborate, rituals are more complex and food is spicier and served with shots of tequila.
Festivities occur nationwide, but Oaxaca is Mexico’s capital of departed souls and the best place to dance with the dead. Lost souls often need a little help finding their way home. Arcs of brightly colored marigolds provide a spiritual welcome mat and represent a gateway to the underworld. The altars are central to the festival and families make them to remember loved ones lost. In Oaxaca, altar and cemetery tours are always popular. Offerings of water and traditional food like Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead) often take the form of calaveras to feed the hungry spirits after their long journey home.
Daytime is a time for resting and reflection, while the night is for remembrance and celebration. In a festival this dark, nighttime is when the dead really come alive. Candlelight processions and vigils occur around the altars, while roving Mariachi bands provide a lively soundtrack.
Food for the soul at this time of year is taken literally. In addition to the bread of the dead, tortillas, Mexican chocolate caliente (hot chocolate) and other traditional treats are on hand. They’re made for the dead, but the living get to enjoy them as the leftovers (sans essence) make a feast for both worlds. Sugar skulls are the most iconic image of the festival. To make them, granulated white sugar is pressed into skull-shaped molds, then colorfully decorated, each containing the name of a departed one. These are placed on graves and altars in remembrance. Some sugar skulls have inspired a whole range of cultural art based upon this tradition.
Another tradition that has spread beyond Mexico is elaborate face painting. In the tradition of the sugar skulls, people paint their faces like the calaveras and processions become a dance of the living dead. The Aztecs believed that death was an awakening or rebirth. The symbolism of skulls is a powerful one and signifies the power of death as a vehicle for transformation to a higher level of consciousness.