All people have ways to honor their dead, but there is nothing like Dia de los Muertos. It is celebrated on November 1st to 2nd. This celebration originates in Mexico, but now is observed by more and more people all over the world! Let’s dive into this super special cultural celebration!
Terms to Know
- Aztec – an ancient native people of Mexico
- Ancestors – your past relatives
- Indigenous – native to an area
- Ancient – belonging to a very distant past
- Cycle – a series of events that repeat
- Pagan – people who held religious beliefs that were not of the main world religions; in this case Christianity
- Pan de muerto – “bread of the dead” is made as part of the preparation for the celebration, to be placed on the altars
Dia de los Muertos is a celebration that combines an Aztec custom celebrating ancestors and two minor Catholic holidays. Together, these have created a unique celebration unlike any other. It is important to note that Dia de los Muertos is not Mexico’s version of Halloween; the two are not related. Let’s learn more about what makes this celebration unique!
History of Dia de los Muertos
The roots of this celebration have been traced back some 3000 years to indigenous people of Mesoamerica. These ancient people believed that the universe moved in cycles. What does that mean? Well let’s look at an example:
Picture a forest, trees and other living things thrive here. Then a fire comes and burns everything away. You might think of this as an end, but instead it is a new beginning! Everything that burned away, that died, left the ground fresh and fertile for new life!
Forest burns and dies : Ground is left fresh and fertile : New life thrives
Likewise, they believed the same about death; rather than an ending, it was the beginning of a new chapter. It was an important and necessary part of the cycle of life!
When someone dies, they believed that person went on a journey to the Land of the Dead. This journey took them through nine challenges until they reached their final resting place, Mictlan. Because of the challenges, it would take years to complete this journey. So family members would offer food, water, and tools for their ancestors to help them along their journey.
Transforming the Celebration
In the 16th Century, Europeans came to the New World and brought Christianity with them. Similarly to what they did back home, they “adopted” the celebrations of the natives and set them to coincide with two minor Catholic holidays: All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In medieval Spain, families would bring wine and spirit bread and would decorate loved ones graves with flowers and lit candles so their ancestors can find their way back home!
Dia de los Muertos Today
Today the celebration has plenty of music and dancing, food and drink, parades, and lots of color! It is not full of mourning, it is a celebration! It is about remembering your loved ones by celebrating their lives and remembering the impacts that they had on your life. Families spend weeks preparing for this two day celebration by cleaning and decorating grave sites, preparing alters (or ofrendas) dedicated to their loved ones, and preparing foods and drinks for the festivities. There are several important symbols of Dia de los Muertos.
Marigolds are used to decorate altars as well as graves of loved ones.
Brightly colored and sweet smelling, this flower is placed on alters and used to decorate grave sites during Dia de los Muertos. It is believed that the flower helps guide the spirits back with their vibrant color and scent. They represent the beauty and fragility of life.
The ties to the celebration of Dia de los Muertos can be found in an Aztec legend:
Two Aztec children, a boy (Huitzilin) and a girl (Xochitl,) would spend all of their free time exploring their town and hiking to the top of a nearby mountain to offer flowers to the Sun God, Tonatiuh. Appreciating their offering, the Sun God would smile down on them. One day the two swore that their love would last forever. Then tragedy struck when a war broke out and Huitzilin went to war and died.
Broken hearted and torn, Xochitl went up the mountain where they proclaimed their eternal love and prayed to be somehow reunited with her lost love. Moved by her prayers, the Sun God reached out and softly touched her cheek with his rays, turning her into a flower with colors as fiery as the sun. Suddenly, a hummingbird lovingly touched the center of the flower; it was Huitzilin! The flower then opened its petals filling the air with its sweet scent. Huitzilin and Xochitl would be together so long as the flowers and hummingbirds lived on the Earth.
Isn’t that a beautiful and sweet story!
Calaveras (Skulls) and Calacas (Skeletons)
Calaveras, or skulls, are found everywhere during Dia de los Muertos. Sugar skull treats, clay decorations, and most notably as face paintings. The skulls are always represented with a big smile on their face, laughing at death. Calacas, or skeletons, are also common finds during this time. They are always dressed up and portrayed in fun activities, and with a big smile! Skulls and Skeletons are never mournful or scary looking; remember, it is a time to celebrate!
Aztecs would leave offerings of food, water, and tools to help their ancestors on their journey to the land of the dead. Today, families set up beautiful alters where they place photos of their loved ones along with flowers, water, and pan de muerto, along with other items that they enjoyed in life!
One of the most iconic symbols of Dia de los Muertos is La Catrina. La Catrina is a female skeleton dressed in a fancy feathered hat. Created by Jose Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s, she represents the Mexicans that wanted to look wealthy and aristocratic like the Europeans of the time. He created her to remind us that “death is democratic;” or that regardless of wealth, skin color, or what society you came from we all end up as skeletons. She is a reminder to live life as you truly are, not to dwell on what you are not or what you wish you were.
Who wouldn’t love to spend a couple days with their lost loved ones? Full of fun and love, this celebration of life helps people to reconnect with their family and friends who have left this physical plane. Watch the video above as the little girl explores the beautiful meaning of this holiday!
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