While communities around the United States are preparing to celebrate Halloween on October 31st, attention in Mexico is turned towards the upcoming Day of the Dead.
Held on November 1st and 2nd, the Day of the Dead, also referred to as El Dia de los Muertos, is an annual celebration encompassing both All Saints’ Day (on November 1st) and All Soul’s Day (on November 2nd). Mexicans, as well as those in other countries with Latin American roots, use these days to honor those who have passed on before them.
The History of the Day of the Dead
Believe it or not, the Day of the Dead was not always celebrated in early November. The festival, which dates back as far as 3,000 years, used to be held during August (or during the 9th month of the old Aztec calendar). The festivities used to go on for not two days but for an entire month at a time.
Over time, especially after Christianity began to take hold around the world, the festival was moved to coincide with the two aforementioned Catholic holidays. Throughout most of Mexico the festival is split into two days because the first honors deceased children while the second honors deceased adults.
Honoring the Dead
In Latin American culture it is believed that honoring those who have passed on makes it easier for their souls to come back to earth and visit those they left behind. Those celebrating the Day of the Dead spend the majority of the festival within local cemeteries, creating altars to honor those they have lost.
Preparation for the Day of the Dead is not a simple process. Most families spend the entire year planning what they will take to the cemeteries and how they will create their altars. Serious preparations begin about a week before the festival takes place. The families of those who have moved on will begin to harvest cempasuchitl (orange marigolds) and will begin making plans for the cleaning of the graves they plan to visit.
The families of the dead usually buy special offerings to leave on the graves. They’ll often buy toys for children, bottles of alcohol for adults, and special candies for either. Special foods, like candied pumpkin, sugar skulls, and the bread of the dead will be prepared for the homes. These special foods are believed to attract the attention of the dead, inviting them to enter the houses they have left behind.
The food left in the houses doesn’t go to waste. Celebrators believe they are sharing these foods with the dead. The dead eat the “essence” and the living will eat the food after the celebrations are over.
In some areas of the country, celebrators will leave blankets and pillows so that their deceased relatives can lie down and rest before traveling back to the afterlife. In places like Janitzio and Mixquic, and in other areas of Mexico, celebrators like to camp out at the gravesites of their loved ones for the entirety of the festival, even going as far as picnicking at the sites.
The Day of the Dead around the World
Day of the Dead celebrations are held in cities and communities around the world. In the United States, for example, the Day of the Dead is especially celebrated in Texas, Arizona, and Los Angeles. Latin Americans in these communities don colorful masks, burn prayers for the dead in special urns, and leave food at specially decorated altars. In some places, like Hollywood, there are special events designed to honor Latino lives lost in the Iraq war.
In European countries, the Day of the Dead is celebrated with parades, masks, sugar skull candies, and even candle lightings. Some countries create altars which are then covered with fragrant flowers and lavish gifts.
Day of the Dead celebrations vary in Latin American countries as well. Celebrators in Guatemala fly giant kites while those in Ecuador usually prepare guagua de pan, a special bread filled with sweet of savory fillings that is created just for the celebration. In Brazil, celebrators go to church to say prayers and then leave flowers on the graves of their loved ones – the celebrations are always positive.
No matter where you go in the world you’ll find communities celebrating the lives of those who have passed in different ways. Be respectful if you should happen to visit Mexico during the Day of the Dead. The celebrations have nothing to do with Halloween and should be quietly observed and respected.