Today is El Día de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, a multi-day Mexican holiday where family and friends gather to pray for and remember their loved ones who have died.
Although Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico, it’s also celebrated in many parts of the United States with large Latinx populations, such as California and Texas. The holiday originated as a combination of Catholic traditions brought by Spanish settlers and indigenous Aztec festivals dedicated to the goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl.
According to dayofthedead.holiday, Day of the Dead begins on Nov. 1, where it is believed that children who have passed away visit for festivities, and ends on Nov. 2, where deceased adults visit their families and take their turn to celebrate. Though commonly mistaken, Day of the Dead has nothing to do with Halloween.
During Day of the Dead, families gather at cemeteries at night to decorate the burial sites of their loved ones and celebrate with music. During the day, celebrations take place through festivals accompanied with music and dancing.
On this holiday families build an ofrenda, which is an altar decorated with photos, food and marigolds, which are believed to guide the dead from their burial site to their ofrenda because of their bright color and pungent smell. The top of the altar is where the photos and personal items of the deceased are placed and the second, lower portion of the altar is where the deceased’s favorite foods are placed. There can even be a third tier at the bottom that is decorated with candles, mirrors and soap, so that the spirits may refresh themselves when they arrive.
There are many Day of the Dead foods, one of them being pan de muertos. It’s a sweet bread that is sprinkled with sugar and decorated with bone shapes. The sweet roll is round with lines crossing it that are meant to represent the limbs of the body, while the ball of dough on the top represents the skull, according to BBC.
Another common Day of the Dead decoration is papel picado, or punched paper. They’re colorful pieces of tissue paper with intricate designs punched into them. To do this, 40 to 50 sheets of tissue paper are stacked on top of each other and then using a template and a mallet or chisel, the designs are punched into the paper, and they are later cut out.
Aside from marigolds, another important symbol of death on the Day of the Dead are calaveras, or skulls. Today, skulls are molded from a sugar paste called alfeñique and brightly decorated with colored paint, beads, glitter, foil and feathers, all edible of course. During the holiday, people celebrate by wearing skull masks and painting their faces with skulls and flowers.
According to BBC, the origins of this tradition can be traced back to the early 20th century when printmaker and political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada made a satirical zinc etching known as “La Calavera Catrina,” which shows a skeleton wearing an extravagant hat. The etching was supposed to be a satirical portrait of Mexican natives who wanted to adopt European fashion and traditions over their own heritage. Later, the character of “La Catrina” was immortalized by artist Diego Rivera when he painted his mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central” in the 1940s that captured 400 years of Mexican history. Today, “La Catrina” has become a symbol of death in Mexico and a reminder to remember the dead in a more positive manner, as opposed to mourning them. The image and figure has been immortalized as people dress themselves as “La Catrina” on Day of the Dead or make figurines of her out of clay, wood or papier mâché.
In the past decade alone, there have been multiple instances in which Day of the Dead has appeared in popular media, the most popular of which is Disney’s 2017 film, “Coco.” There have been other movies, like “The Book of Life” (2014), that showcase Day of the Dead and introduce viewers to the holiday and its celebrations. In the 2015 James Bond film, “Spectre,” Bond must carry out a mission during a Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City. The 2018 video game “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” has a portion of the game take place in Mexico during the holiday.
Though the customs and popularity of the holiday has evolved over time, Day of the Dead remains an important holiday in Mexican culture as its traditions help families remember their loved ones and pass down stories through many generations. Take the time today to learn more about the holiday and its significance and, of course, feliz Día de los Muertos.