Everything You Need To Know - Day of the Dead in Mexico!
What is it?
Day of the Dead (Dia De Los Muertos) is one of the world’s most misunderstood holidays. Because it’s
celebrated within range of Halloween and features an assortment of macabre imagery and costumes, some people assume it’s just “Mexican Halloween”.
It’s much more than that!
Originally a harvest celebration for the Aztecs, what would become the Day of the Dead in Mexico was originally celebrated around the end of summer - structured as it was around the farming season. This is much like Halloween, which is derived from pagan celebrations that also celebrated the change of the seasons. Spanish conquistadors bringing Catholic influence to Latin America combined the celebration with the Catholic traditions of All Saints’ and AllSouls’ Day – two-day structure occurring on November 1st & 2nd each year.
Day of the Dead occupies the same two days on the calendar year, but the focus is different. On the first day, families remember children who have died, and on the second, the adults. The central belief is that the spirits of loved ones can join the living on those days and commune with them, and the celebration is geared towards that idea: People leave toys and Calaveras (the iconic skull — made from sugar — that inspires the makeup and look of the holiday) for children, and for adults they leave food, favorite possessions, and alcohol at elaborate homemade altars (called ofrendas).
Celebrations can also include live music, dancing, and parades from residences to graveyards, where family members will gather around their loved ones’ graves. Mexico City has never had a parade to celebrate Dia De Los Muertos, but held their first in 2016, inspired by, of all things, the recent James Bond movie Spectre (yes, really). One of the holiday’s most iconic symbols is a political cartoon:
In the early 20th century, famous Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada sketched out a female skeleton dressed in an elaborate hat...
Posada’s intent was to skewer Mexican natives he felt were rushing to adopt European modes and customs at the expense of their own culture, but she became a larger symbol of the holiday
thanks to Diego Rivera, who christened the character La Calaveras Catrina in his 1948 work:
Sueño De Una Tarde Dominic Al En La Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda), pictured here. To this day, she — and her attendant male counterparts —have become an essential representation of the holiday. and officiant of the Aztec harvest celebrations that would evolve into Dia De Los Muertos.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that, despite all the morbid imagery, Dia De Los Muertos is about celebrating life, not mourning death. It’s a joyous holiday, one that winks at death instead of crying over it.
Ofrendas (Altas) and Dia De Los Muertos
The welcoming back of the spirits is observed in households with the creation. The quality and degree of ornamentation of the ofrendas depend on regional traditions, family and individual wealth, recent deaths, or the year’s harvest.
On the ofrendas, the main objects are symbolic of life’s elements: water, wind, fire, and earth.
*Fire is signified by the candles that are lit.
*Water is served in a clay pitcher or glass to quench the spirit’s thirst from their long journey.
*Wind is signified by papel picado (tissue paper cut-outs).
*The earth element is represented by food, usually pan de Muertos (bread of the dead).
Other offerings include mole, fruit, chocolate, atole, toys, sugar skulls, and copal
incense. Around all of it, they scatter marigold petals.
Sugar skulls are decorated with sugar flowers, designs and have, sometimes, the name of the loved one written on the forehead. They represent death and the sweetness of life.
Copalli incense comes from the copal tree. It symbolizes the transformation from the
physical, the tree, to the supernatural, the perfumed smoke. The rising smoke takes the
prayers to the heavens and the gods.
Candles guide and light the path of the spirits to their ofrendas. Candles can come in different
sizes depending in the altar is for a child or an adult.
Pan de Muerto is especially made to place on the ofrendas and graves. It’s a sweet bread
flavored with anise and orange peel. It’s baked in a round shape like a skull and symbolizes
the main state of human life.
A framed photo of the deceased to whom the altar is dedicated, usually positioned in a prime
spot on the altar.
Papel picado are tissue paper banners with cut out designs of animated skeleton figures. They
decorate ofrendas, homes, streets and buildings. They symbolize the wind, one of the
elements of life.
Orange Flowers Everywhere!
Mexican Marigolds & Dia De Los Muertos
The flower now called Mexican marigold was known to the Aztecs as Yauhtli, or "the fog." Some say imbibing its alkaloids fogged the human brain. Aztec priests blew a dried, powdered form of the plant into their sacrificial victims' faces to calm them before a horrific death.
The most intriguing name for this five-petal yellow wildflower is "an offered-up thing," suggesting its use as incense. Any gardener who has grown American marigolds knows of the pungent odor said to drive away pests from neighboring garden plants. This is a flower so steeped in pre-Columbian religion and practice that it is still widely used today by curanderas, Mexican folk healers. There is science behind this, for the plant oils kill the deadly bacteria Staphylococcus aureus.
Naturally, it’s not surprising that this plant would become the central flower of El Dia De Los Muertos. Altars, or ofrendas, are created everywhere...arranging flowers and food for the dead who return to their families for a short time. The Mexican marigold is the flower of choice because of its scent, considered easily recognized by the spirit world. It is said to lure the dead, who will follow paths of petals from grave to home and back again.
The Mexican Marigold is not commonly found growing wild -
except for deep into Mexico, where the flowers are native.
But, wander around the marketplaces of San Miguel De Allende
and you'll find these colorful flowers.
Great bundles are stacked up to sell for home altars.
As you wander around San Miguel, you’ll find them everywhere:
woven into hairbands and flower arrangements in the Jardin,
to beautifully decorated entrances into homes and buildings.
The clash of the petals bright orange hue, coupled with the
deep blue sky above the city, is quite simply, unforgettable!