In Mexico and other Latin countries, November 1st marks the start of el Día de los Muertos (Dia de Muertos); Day of the Dead. We often associate this Holiday with lively imagery of colorful costumes and candy skull makeup, like the aesthetic of the movies Book of Life and Coco.
Although death is a heavy subjectmatter, Dia de Muertos is meant to be a lightheared celebration of the life and times of loved ones who have passed on. La Catrina is sometimes referred to as “the elegant skull” and is a central character meant to rencompass this sentiment of not taking death too seriously.
Families put together ofrendas, or altars, where they lovingly place pictures of the dead and their favorite objects such as cigars or old clothes. Candles, marigolds, and traditional food like calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls) and pan de muertos (bread of the dead) decorate the ofrendas.
Families will often visit and clean their loved ones’ graves. In several areas, they have religious processions, night vigils, colorful markets, and festivals to celebrate the fallen.
A Short History of Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead traditions originate from the Aztecs and other Nahua people living in present-day central America. Upon death, a person was said to enter Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead, where they must go through nine challenging levels in order to reach their final resting place, Mictlán.
In August, Nahua families would put out food, water, and tools to help their deceased loved ones on their quest. Spanish conquistadors further influenced these traditions with the lighting of candles and putting out wine and pan de ánimas ,or spirit bread, on their loved ones’ graves on All Souls’ Day.
The spirits that were normally kept alive only through stories, memories, and legends were allowed to visit the Earth on these two days. Each day is a dedicated rememberence to different categories of those who have passed.
November 2 is typically reserved for dead adults and is referred to as Dia del los Difuntos. November 1 is also known as Dia de los Inocentes and is used to commemorate children.
These traditions and oral histories inspired the modern Day of the Dead rituals where families continue honoring their loved ones in Mexico and throughout Latin America as well as the Carribean. Honoring the dead can often remind us to live in the moment and to make the most out of what we have while we have it, for life is short.