No, I’m not talking about George Romero’s 1985 Zombie movie. The real Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, dates back in origin to the Aztec Indians of Mexico.
The Aztecs believed in an afterlife where the spirits of their dead would return as hummingbirds and butterflies. Images carved in ancient Aztec monuments illustrate this belief in the link between human spirits and the Monarch butterfly. Every autumn, Monarch butterflies that have spent the summer up north in the United States and Canada, migrate to Mexico for the winter protection of the Oyamel fir trees. Local inhabitants welcome back the returning butterflies each year, believing that they bear the spirits of their departed. These spirits are honored during Día de los Muertos.
After the Spanish conquered Mexico in 1521, Aztec beliefs and rituals merged with Spanish and European religion and traditions. Día de los Muertos festivities coincide with the pagan practice of Halloween (October 31), as well as the Catholic holy days of All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). Many Americans think Día de los Muertos is macabre or related to Halloween, but it really isn’t. Día de los Muertos is light and upbeat in tone, not scary. It is not a morbid occasion, but rather a festive celebration. It is not a sad or mournful time, but instead a time of remembering and rejoicing.
Día de los Muertos is celebrated between noon on October 31 and November 2. During this time, the spirits of the dead are expected to return to their homes, visit loved ones, feast on their favorite foods, and listen to their favorite music. In anticipation of the honored guests, families travel to the cemetery where cleaning and decorating preparations take place following a morning mass at church.
The people carry hoes, picks and shovels. They also bring flowers (both natural and artificial), candles, blankets, picnic baskets, and guitars or radios for listening to music. The gravesites are weeded, the dirt is raked smooth, and flowers are planted. The gravestones are scrubbed clean. Bread, fruit, candles, and colorful artificial flowers are placed on the graves. Families have picnics at the gravesites. Some families spend all day and even the entire night in the cemetery.
Different localities have their own way of celebrating Día de los Muertos. In old Mexico, townspeople dress up as ghouls, ghosts, mummies, and skeletons. They parade through town carrying an open coffin. The “corpse” within smiles as it is carried through the narrow streets of town. The local vendors toss oranges inside as the procession makes its way past their markets. Lucky “corpses” can also catch flowers, fruits, and candies.
Skulls and skeletons are a popular theme at this time, especially edible chocolate skulls and white chocolate skeletons. Handmade skeleton figurines, called “calacas,” usually show an active and joyful afterlife. They may be figures of musicians, horseback riders, even skeletal brides in white gowns marching down the aisles with their boney grooms. Special round loaves of bread called “pan de muertos” (Bread of the Dead) are baked and decorated with “bones” or sugar skulls.
At home, family members honor their departed loved ones with “ofrendas,” which consist of both familiar and symbolic offerings placed on uniquely created altars. These offerings may include: photographs, religious pictures, bread, tamales, fruit, candy, sugar skulls, toys, yellow marigolds and other flowers, a glass of water, candles, incense, cut tissue-paper decorations, and personal mementos. Cigarettes and tequila are also offered to the returning souls if these things were enjoyed during their life.
The candles placed on the ofrendas serve to light and guide the souls’ way to the altars. “Angelitos,” the spirits of infants and children, are anticipated to arrive just before dawn on November 1st, following a path of marigolds home. They stay for several hours, but then they must leave before the adult souls arrive. It is believed that both the adults’ and children’s spirits will go away weeping if nothing is offered to them.
Modern Mexican families usually observe Día de los Muertos with a special family supper on November 2nd featuring “Pan de Muerto.” It is considered good luck to be the one who bites into a plastic toy skeleton hidden inside the loaf. The deceased relatives’ favorite foods are also prepared. Some households will even set extra places at the dinner table for their dead family members. Food is offered until dawn, and gifts of sugar skeletons and similar items are exchanged. Incense is burned and prayers to the dead family members are said at the altars. In the late afternoon special candles are lit, which burn all night.
On November 3rd, in some places mummers run around town wearing masks to chase the stubborn souls back to the land of the dead. To mark the departure of the spirits, family members and friends participate in the ritual of blowing out and removing the candles from the altars. Then the altars and decorations are taken down.
Día de los Muertos is a time to be with loved ones again, not physically, but in spirit. The annual festivities associated with Día de los Muertos provide a special opportunity for the living to show respect for their departed ancestors, grandparents, parents and other loved ones. It brings about greater reverence for the memories of those who are gone. At the same time, it lends deeper meaning to the life of the living.
In Mexican-American communities of the Southwestern US (Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona), Día de los Muertos celebrations are very similar to those held in Mexico. In other places, like in California, interactions between Mexican traditions and American culture result in more artistic or sometimes political statements. In many countries with a Roman Catholic heritage, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have long been holidays in which people take the day off work, go to cemeteries with candles and flowers, and give presents to children, usually sweets and toys. Mexican-style Day of the Dead celebrations also occur in other places around the world.
Day of the Dead History – An extensive, informative Day of the Dead site with recipes, photos, traditions, symbolism, a timeline, trivia, Flash Cards, book list, articles, videos, slideshows, and a downloadable education companion with classroom activities. Everything you need for a Día de los Muertos Unit Study!
Mexico’s Day of the Dead Resource Page – A collection of descriptive stories, personal experiences, artistic manifestations, original short stories, book reviews, picture galleries, and ideas for creating your own celebration.
Day of the Dead Resource Guide – This Día de los Muertos page is part of a Latino Festivals Resource Guide provided by the University of Wisconsin School Library Education Consortium.