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One of the most beautiful holidays celebrated each year in Mexico and Latin America is Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. It’s always celebrated November 1-2. During this time people dress in elaborate, colorful costumes and don funky makeup emulating skeletons.
But it is not scary. Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of Halloween. Halloween is more about frightening stuff and pulling pranks, where Day of the Dead celebrates death in a joyful, life-affirming way. The whole point of the festivities is to honor, love and show respect for deceased family members and friends. Most towns hold parades where locals, in costume, sing and dance in celebration of the lives of those who have died. The holiday is packed with symbols and rituals, and the more we have experienced it, the more Capt’n Clean and I appreciate it.
Day of the Dead dates back thousands of years with the Aztec, Toltec and Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. Death was considered a part of life, and those who had died were still part of the communities kept alive in the memories of the living. It was believed that during Day of the Dead those that had passed on would return temporarily.
With modern celebrations, an altar (ofrenda) is the center of the activity. These are not for worshipping, but rather to welcome back the spirit of the deceased loved ones. They are built in homes and at cemeteries. The altars are loaded with food, water, family photos and candles. If the dead soul is a child, toys are placed on the altar.
Traveling from the spirit world back to the realm of the living is bound to work up a hearty appetite. So many families will place their dead loved one’s favorite meal on the altar. One food favorite is pan de muerto, bread of the dead. It is a sweet bread decorated with skulls and bones made from the dough. Another is the sugar skull, a sweet confection pressed into a skull mold and decorated with colorful sugar crystals. Traditional drinks include pulque, a sweet, fermented agave drink, and atole, a warm, thick drink made from corn flour, sugar and vanilla.
The primary flower used for decorating during Day of the Dead is the marigold. Marigold petals are scattered from family altars to the graves of deceased persons to guide them back to their place of rest. Incense is burned to purify the air around the altars.
The Spanish word, calavera, means “skull.” But during the 1700-1800s, the word calavera was used to describe a short, funny poem that was often published in newspapers to poke fun at those still living. The literary calaveras are prevalent today and often you’ll see poems accompanying altars and displays.
Dressing up as a skeleton is part of the celebration. People of all ages have their faces elaborately painted to emulate skulls. The most popular “look” is the calavera Catrina, who was made famous by cartoonist, Jose Guadalupe Posada.
Streets are decorated with paper, cut-out flags called papel picados. The artistry of this craft is incredible. You’ve probably seen these paper decorations in restaurants and lining streets for other festivals, but they serve a special purpose during Day of the Dead. They are draped around altars and line many streets and as the wind blows, they are a beautiful representation of the fragility of life.
If you saw the movie, Coco, you probably already appreciate this enchanting holiday. Frankly, I think that it should be celebrated worldwide.
Day of the Dead is a thoughtful reminder about how much we take life for granted, as well as a beautiful way to pay homage to the special people in our lives who are no longer living.
Memories keep us alive. Whose life will you celebrate today?
“As long as there is love and memory, there is no true loss.”
Friends follow and forward Wimpy Girl.. (Hint, hint)
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This work by Anel “Pookie” Ryan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
I love Day of the Dead! I went to Sayulita Mexico and got to celebrate there with my husband before he passed away in 2020. We always went to the parade in San Francisco. I will celebrate Primo Santana. I miss him and will always love him.