The Meaning Behind the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos)

October 11, 2017

Meaning of Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos (Spanish), is a Mexican holiday that is also celebrated by people of Mexican ancestry living in other places, including the United States. This holiday is one of the world's most fascinating celebrations.

Death Celebrated - Not Mourned

A key principle associated with the Day of the Dead celebration is the thought that the dead would be insulted if living family members mourned the deceased. As such, the Day of the Dead holiday celebrates the lives of the deceased.

Participants in Day of the Dead celebrations recognize death as a natural part of the human experience, along with birth, childhood and adulthood.  Friends and family of the departed remember the honor those that have left the earth through food, drink, parties and activities focused on the deceased. Those that celebrate the Day of the Dead believe that the deceased return to earth to become reunited with friends and family - if only for a day.

The Aztec Roots of Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico developed from ancient traditions among its pre-Columbian cultures. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors had been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2,500 - 3,000 years.

When Spaniards arrived in Mexico during the 16th century they observed the native Aztec practice of honoring the dead. The celebration occurred in the summer during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month! The festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the "Lady of the Dead," corresponding to the modern La Calavera Catrina.

Day of the Dead - La Calavera Catrina

While the Christian Spaniards thought the Day of the Dead practice was sacrilegious they could not stop the natives from honoring their predecessors. The bond was too strong between the living and the dead. Not only did the Day of the Dead celebration survive the Spanish opposition, it thrived.

Initially celebrated in southern Mexico, over time the practice moved northward. As the practice grew in popularity, it began to meld with elements of Christianity and eventually moved from the summer time to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated on November 1 and 2, respectively.

By the late 20th century in most regions of Mexico, Day of the Dead practices had developed to honor dead children and infants on November 1, and to honor deceased adults on November 2. November 1 is generally referred to as Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") or Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels"). November 2 is referred to as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos ("Day of the Dead").

Those that celebrate Day of the Dead believe that the children's spirits visit from midnight on October 31st through midnight on November 1st, at which time the children's spirits leave and the adult spirits arrive.

Party with the Dead

Day of the Dead focuses on bringing together family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died - and to help support their spiritual journey. Many that celebrate Day of the Dead look to the spirits for guidance and council.

During the multi-day Day of the Dead holiday, families visit the cemeteries where their relatives are buried. They pay their respects by cleaning and maintaining the tombs, pulling weeds surrounding the tomb, decorating the tombs and generally providing upkeep.

Day of the Dead - Tomb Decoration

Family members bring food, play music, sing, drink tequila and mezcal and tell stories about the deceased. Imagine a tailgate party held at a cemetery!

While some may view the Day of the Dead celebration as sacrilege, participants believe quite the opposite. To participants it is right to visit the departed, spend time with them and let them know that they are not forgotten.

Day of the Dead is a celebration of life - the departed's life. In Mexico, entire communities can be found at the cemetery taking part in the Day of the Dead festivities. To the uninitiated this practice may seem odd, even creepy. But to participants it is a deeply spiritual and happy experience.

While many cultures think of cemeteries as dark, evil and haunted, Day of the Dead participants think of death and cemeteries as nothing to be scared of but instead something to celebrate. Cemeteries are a place to visit ancestors and provide support while getting spiritual support. It's not scary like a Friday the 13th movie. It's uplifting.

Creating an Ofrenda

Leading up to the Day of the Dead celebration, family members create altars dedicated to the deceased family member. The altar, or "ofrenda," is usually set up in the home of the family member honoring the deceased. If local, the family member takes the ofrenda to the grave site on Day of the Dead and uses it to decorate the tomb.

Day of the Dead altars are commonly decorated with flowers, candles, ceramic skulls and photos of loved ones. The food placed on the altar consists of the loved one's favorite dishes and treats and many times includes Day of the Dead breads called pan de muerto.

Day of the Dead - Ofrenda

Drinks are placed in the altar to quench the thirst of the dead after their long journey back home. It it common to include tequila and mezcal among the drinks included in the ofrenda.

Other items included in the ofrenda include marigolds as well as burning copal. The yellow marigold petals guide spirits of loved ones to the celebration. The scent of the copal is thought to be enjoyed by the spirits of the dead. Together the marigolds and copal act as a beacons to the deceased's spirit.  

Face Painting

Apart from creating ofrendas in tribute to the dead and bringing belongings to the grave site, there is the highly visible practice of face painting.

It is common practice for those celebrating the Day of the Dead to paint their faces to look like skulls. The face painting is done to either represent a deceased loved one or as an expression of themselves.

Day of the Dead - Face Painting

While the use of black paint is common in face painting, the use of vibrant colors is equally common. And each color has a meaning. 

Yellow - Represents the sun and unity. Under the sun, we’re all the same.

White - Represents spirit, hope and purity.

Red - Represents blood and life.

Purple – Represents mourning, grief and suffering.

Pink - Represents happiness.

Birth of the Sugar Skull (Calavera)

Another common Day of the Dead tradition is the use of calaveras, or sugar skulls (calaveritas de azúcar), to decorate ofrendas and grave sites. Sugar skulls have become ubiquitous worldwide. Like the smiley face, the sugar skull has become been adopted for use in many settings.

But is was the Day of the Dead celebration that gave birth to the sugar skull.  During Day of the Dead celebrations the sugar skulls are intended to resemble the deceased. It is common to write the name of the deceased on the top of the sugar skull. The sugar skulls are decorated and very colorful.

The making and use of sugar skulls originated in Southern Mexico, the origin of the Day of the Dead tradition. In the early days, sugar skulls were literally made of sugar! The technique was introduced to Mexico by the friars during the Spanish conquest. Sugar was plentiful in Southern Mexico so raw materials were widely available and affordable - even for the poor indigenous people.

Today, with the exception of purists, sugar skulls are no longer made of sugar and are instead made from molds using plastic, clay or other materials. Although not made literally from sugar, these decorated replacement skulls continue to be referred to as sugar skulls.

The spirits of the dead are welcomed back to their homes with beautifully decorated ofrendas made by their loved ones. Sugar skulls play an integral role in the decoration of the ofrendas.

Day of the Dead - Sugar Skulls

Smaller sugar skulls are placed on the ofrenda on November 1st in honor of deceased children. Larger, more ornate sugar skulls are placed on the ofrenda on November 2nd to honor deceased adults. If the gravesite of the deceased is local the family will take the sugar skulls and other adornments (flowers, food, drinks, photos, etc.) to the cemetery to decorate the tombs of the deceased.

The sugar skulls are decorated with stripes, dots, and swirls of icing to enhance the features of the sugar skulls. These designs are usually whimsical and brightly colored, not morbid or scary. Feathers, beads or colored foils are "glued" on with the icing to create highly ornate sugar skulls.

While sugar skulls are not intended to be eaten, some make edible sugar skulls made out of chocolate or make cookies to resemble sugar skulls.

Worldwide Adoption

Today the holiday has spread throughout the world, being absorbed within other deep traditions for honoring the dead. So if you were wondering what it was all about, now you know!

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