Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos in Spanish) is a Mexican and Mexican-American celebration of dead ancestors which occurs on November 1 and November 2, coinciding with the similar Roman Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. While it is primarily viewed as a Mexican holiday, it is also celebrated in communities in the United States with large populations of Mexican-Americans, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Latin America. Despite the morbid subject matter, this holiday is celebrated joyfully, and though it occurs at the same time as Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, the mood of The Day of the Dead is much lighter, with the emphasis on celebrating and honoring the lives of the deceased, rather than fearing evil or malevolent spirits. The origins of the celebration of The Day of the Dead in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous peoples of Latin America, such as the Aztecs, Mayans Purepecha, Nahua and Totonac.
Sugar skull, typical of those eaten on El Dia de los Muertos
Rituals celebrating the lives of dead ancestors had been performed by these Mesoamerican civilizations for at least 3,000 years. It was common practice to keep skulls as trophies and display them during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. The festival which was to become El Día de los Muertos fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, near the start of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead”. The festivities were dedicated to the celebration of children and the lives of dead relatives.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Central America in the 15th century they were appalled at the indigenous pagan practices, and in an attempt to convert the locals to Catholicism moved the popular festival to the beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days. All Saints Day is the day after Halloween, which was in turn based on the earlier pagan ritual of Samhain, the Celtic day and feast of the dead. The Spanish combined their custom of Halloween with the similar Mesoamerican festival, creating The Day of the Dead.
The souls of children are believed to return first on November 1, with adult spirits following on November 2. Plans for the festival are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods that will be offered to the dead. During the period of October 31 and November 2 families usually clean and decorate the graves. Some wealthier families build altars in their homes, but most simply visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas, or offerings. These include wreaths of marigold, which are thought to attract the souls of the dead toward the offerings, and toys brought for dead children (los angelitos, or little angels) and bottles of tequila, mezcal, pulque or atole for adults.
A common symbol of the holiday is the skull, which celebrants represent in masks called calacas. Sugar skulls, inscribed with the names of the deceased on the forehead, are often eaten by a relative or friend. Other special foods for El Día de los Muertos includes Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead), a sweet egg bread made in many shapes, from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits.
History of Day of the Dead ~ Dia de los Muertos
Day of the Dead is an interesting holiday celebrated in central and southern Mexico during the chilly days of November 1 & 2. Even though this coincides with the Catholic holiday called All Soul’s & All Saint’s Day, the indigenous people have combined this with their own ancient beliefs of honoring their deceased loved ones.
They believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.
In most Indian villages, beautiful altars (ofrendas) are made in each home. They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil & bright red cock’s combs) mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.
Day of the Dead is a very expensive holiday for these self-sufficient, rural based, indigenous families. Many spend over two month’s income to honor their dead relatives. They believe that happy spirits will provide protection, good luck and wisdom to their families. Ofrenda building keeps the family close.
On the afternoon of Nov. 2, the festivities are taken to the cemetery. People clean tombs, play cards, listen to the village band and reminisce about their loved ones. Tradition keeps the village close. Day of the Dead is becoming very popular in the U.S.~ perhaps because we don’t have a way to celebrate and honor our dead, or maybe it’s because of our fascination with it’s mysticism.
The Catholic World
Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico and the Catholic world… Italy, Spain, South America and the Philippines all celebrate All Souls and All Saints Day on November 1st and 2nd. Special Masses and perhaps cleaning of the cemetery tombs are part of the traditional activities… it’s only in Central and Southern Mexico where the colorful parties take place in the cemeteries and elaborate ofrenda altars are built in the homes to honor specific family members who have passed on.
This sweet angel grave marker is nestled amongst thousands of candles which illuminate the cemetery in Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca. Here, family members sit vigil in the cemetery throughout the night of October 31, so as to welcome the “angelitos” or dead children’s spirits the moment they are released from heaven to come home to visit their parents.
This home baker in northern Veracruz is an expert in his village for preserving the ancient culinary tradition of the zacahuíl, or gigantic banana leaf-wrapped tamal. This tamale will serve over 100 people on Day of the Dead. It’s a pistol to construct and wrap so it doesn’t fall apart; then baked in a homemade adobe outdoor oven. It’s then sealed with mud until morning.
The sugar skull fair – Feria de Alfinique – is a child’s paradise. This little one is so excited to make her sugar skull purchase.
The Catholic World
In Mexico, the colorful, much anticipated, Day of the Dead celebrations are generally celebrated in the states from Mexico City south. This includes Michoacan, Mexico, Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Chiapas and the Yucatan. Northern Mexico, with its less indigenous and more European roots, spend the day scrubbing graves and going to Mass… not having music, drinks and parties in the cemeteries.
Folks in parts of Italy, Spain, Central & South America and the Philippines all celebrate All Souls and All Saints Day on November 1st and 2nd. Special Masses and perhaps cleaning of the cemetery tombs are part of the traditional activities…
These molded sugar coffins are actually toys to delight the returning spirits of children on November 1. Pull the string and a smiling calavera skeleton pops out of his coffin!
Day of the Dead outdoor market in Patzcuaro, Michoacan where locals buy their sugar skulls, special foods, copal and altar decorations. This is the only market where I’ve found sugar cats and sugar Guadalupes.
This woman artisan was busy decorating her home ofrenda with candles, copal, fruits, cempasuchil (wild marigolds), cock’s comb and saint’s images. Later, when the home cooking is done, she’ll bring big plates of food to offer to the spirits of her returning loved ones! Note the beautiful cross-point cloths she made.
Here’s an old photo of me in the Talcolula, Oaxaca outdoor market buying sugar cane from one of the many “out of town vendors” who come in with all the special items we need to celebrate the holiday. I got four 8 ft tall stalks of sugar cane for about $4. These are used to make the arch over the ofrenda which represents the archway to heaven.
Gigantic sugar skulls are made from 50 year old molds for the competition at the Feria de Alfinique in Metepec, Mexico. These sugar skull makers have been making artisanal sugar for generations.
Chocolate sugar skulls are hand molded & decorated and sold by the thousands at the Sugar Skull Fair. Candy makers work for 4-6 months to have enough merchandise for the sale. Sugar skulls are sometimes eaten, but their main function is to adorn the altars and tombs with a sugary delight for the visiting spirits! Miniature candy skulls are made for the baby angelitos and are displayed on the home ofrendas on November 1… then replaced with full size skulls on November 2 for the returning adult spirits!
Sugar Skull Tradition
Sugar art was brought to the New World by Italian missionaries in the 17th century. The first Church mention of sugar art was from Palermo at Easter time when little sugar lambs and angels were made to adorn the side altars in the Catholic Church.
Mexico, abundant in sugar production and too poor to buy fancy imported European church decorations, learned quickly from the friars how to make sugar art for their religious festivals. Clay molded sugar figures of angels, sheep and sugar skulls go back to the Colonial Period 18th century. Sugar skulls represented a departed soul, had the name written on the forehead and was placed on the home ofrenda or gravestone to honor the return of a particular spirit. Sugar skull art reflects the folk art style of big happy smiles, colorful icing and sparkly tin and glittery adornments. Sugar skulls are labor intensive and made in very small batches in the homes of sugar skull makers. These wonderful artisans are disappearing as fabricated and imported candy skulls take their place.
There is nothing as beautiful as a big, fancy, unusual sugar skull!
Although it is a holiday from far away in southern Mexico, it’s a holiday one can personalize and integrate into their own religious and cultural beliefs. It is more of a cultural holiday than a religious one. It is a wonderful way to celebrate the memories of our loved ones who are now gone… through art, cooking, music, building ofrendas, doing activities with our children, we can recount family stories, fun times and lessons learned… not how the person died, but how they lived.
I hope you come to enjoy Day of the Dead as much as I do!
Thanks for reading,
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina