Throughout time, civilizations ranging from ancient Egypt, to China, to Mexico, have created ways of coming to terms with death. Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is an essential part of the Mexican identity, with its origins fusing pre-Columbian indigenous rituals and European Catholic beliefs. This holiday is neither morbid nor macabre, rather it is a celebration of remembrance that acknowledges death as a natural part of the human experience. Día de los Muertos originated in Mexican folklore tradition and aims to honor the life + memory of loved ones that have passed away. During November 1–2, family members gather to pray and pay tribute to departed family members. Day of the Dead is also meant to bring hope by providing a way to cope with our own impending mortality. Read on to find out the true meaning behind Day of the Dead (it has nothing to do with Halloween).
The origins of Day of the Dead took place in pre-Columbian Mexico or Mesoamerica, as it was known over 2000 years ago. The civilizations of Mesoamerica held a cyclical view of the Universe and believed in the afterlife. They believed that when people died, only their physical body perished but their soul, a divine and everlasting creation, travelled to Chicunamictlán or the Land of the Dead. Chicunamictlán was ruled by a king and his wife – Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl. This was a transitory four year journey that consisted of nine challenging and dangerous levels. Each soul needed to successfully complete each level to reach Mictlán, the final resting place. Día de los Muertos celebrations are meant to help departed loved ones with this spiritual journey by remembering them and providing tools, food and water as ofrendas (offerings). These offerings are usually placed on altars along with the symbolic sugar skulls. Interestingly, when the Spanish colonized Mexico, they were forced to merge Christian beliefs with the indigenous rituals, including Day of the Dead, as the natives refused to give up their long held traditions. Thus, Day of the Dead celebrations shifted from August to early November to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. Nowadays, dead children and infants are honored on Nov 1st (All Saints Day) while deceased adults are paid their respects on Nov 2nd (All Souls Day).
For a visually stunning and heartwarming representation of this holiday, I highly recommend Guillermo del Toro’s Book of Life film.
Originally, Day of the Dead was celebrated according to the Aztec calendar and occurred during the month of August. These festivities were dedicated to one of the deities ruling the Land of the Dead – Mictecacihuatl. She was also called “Lady of the Dead.” This goddess was modernized and popularized in the early 1900s by the Mexican satirical cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada when he created the now ubiquitous La Calavera Catrina. Posada was best known for his calaveras and calacas drawings (skeletons + skulls) which he used to critique the Mexican upper social class. Perhaps his most well-known cartoon is La Calavera Catrina—The Elegant/Dandy Skull—which is a parody portrait of wealthy Mexican women that aspired to dress like European aristocrats, hence the ornate hat. The drawing of La Catrina is now the modern icon of Día de los Muertos. Posada's Catrina has also become a popular Halloween costume in the U.S., where Day of the Dead is also practiced (this might the reason why some confuse Halloween and Day of the Dead). Although this celebration originated in Mexico, there are variations of similar holidays throughout Latin America and the world.
Acceptance of Death
In Mexican culture, everyone is exposed to the concept of death from very early on. As a child, I remember going with my family to the cemetery during Día de los Muertos to clean and decorate the tombstones of family members. We built altars using marigolds, veladoras (candles with religious deities), pan de muertos (sweet bread) as well as favorite foods and beverages of the deceased relatives. I didn’t fully comprehend the ritual I enjoyed it because it always felt more like a festivity rather than mourning.
Interesting things happen when people become aware of death at a young age, a cozy and humorous relationship emerges. As Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz puts in Labyrinth of Solitude, "A Mexican mocks, caresses, sleeps with and entertains death." Paz goes on to say that death is "one of Mexicans’ favorite playthings and most enduring love.” Watch this beautiful short film that perfectly illustrates and depicts the odd relationship Mexicans have with La Muerte.
I hope this overview provides you with more knowledge of what has become a mainstream celebration. But, what about you? Does your family celebrate this observance? Do you? Are you aware of ways other cultures pay tribute to their late loved ones? Leave me a comment with your thoughts and questions!