Edited by Gerald Boerner
The Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) is generally celebrated in Mexico and much of Latin America on November 2nd. It follows the more widely celebrated All Saints Day which is celebrated on November 1st. It is a day in which families celebrate those who have passed on; it is celebrated by decorating their plots in graveyards and celebrating the events of their lives. It is also celebrated in many of the Catholic countries in Europe and in the Philippines. In the United States it is celebrated by regions with large Hispanic populations, especially those who have immigrated from Mexico.
The Mexican celebration was evolved from the Aztec Festival of Mictecacihuatl. The observance of this holiday in the United States is viewed by the general population as a novelty. Our culture does not understand this event, or, in that case, many of the holiday traditions that we celebrate.
Given the above, it might behoove us to investigate the origins of the various holidays that we celebrate. We would find that, while many appear to be related to observances by the Christian Church, especially the Catholic Church. we will find that these traditions are derived from pagan ceremonies and/or feasts celebrated in the lands brought under the control of the church. Let us become more aware of why we celebrate each of our holidays and decide for ourselves their validity for ourselves.
So, let’s dive into our exploration of the Hispanic tradition of The Day of the Dead together… GLB
These Introductory Comments are copyrighted:
Copyright©2011 — Gerald Boerner — All Rights Reserved
[ 2250 Words ]
Quotations Related to Halloween:
“Where there is no imagination there is no horror.”
— Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr.
“Eat, drink and be scary.”
— Author Unknown
“Nothing on Earth so beautiful as the final haul on Halloween night.”
— Steve Almond
“Her face is unforgettable and she goes by many names: La Catrina, la Flaca, la Huesuda, la Pelona–Fancy Lady, Skinny, Bony, Baldy. A fixture in Mexican society, she’s not some trendy fashion model, but La Muerte–Death.”
— Dale Hoyt Palfrey
“To the resident of New York, Paris or London, the word Death is never pronounced because it burns the lips. Mexicans on the other hand, frequent it, caress it, they sleep with it, they celebrate it; it is one of their favorite games and their most permanent love.”
— Octavio Paz
“The essence of this beautiful ritual is to lovingly and happily remember the dead relatives, their life, and in this way, give meaning and continuity to human existence.”
— May Herz
“Day of the Dead in Mexico represents a mixture of Christian devotion and Pre-Hispanic traditions and beliefs. As a result of this mixture, the celebration comes to life as an unique Mexican tradition including an altar and offerings dedicated to the deceased.”
— Denise W.
“…undaunted by death, the Mexican has no qualms about getting up close and personal with death, noting that he ‘…chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.’ ”
— Octavio Paz
Halloween Traditions: "Day of the Dead"…
The Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos or All Souls’ Day) is a holiday celebrated in Mexico and by Latin Americans living in the United States and Canada. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The celebration occurs on November 1st and 2nd in connection with the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day which occurs on November 1st and All Souls’ Day which occurs on November 2nd. Traditions include building private altars honoring the deceased, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts.
Scholars trace the origins of the modern holiday to indigenous observances dating back thousands of years, and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl.
Similar holidays are celebrated in many parts of the world; for example, it’s a public holiday (Dia de Finados) in Brazil, where many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their loved ones who have died. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe and in the Philippines, and similarly-themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.
Observances in Mexico
The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous cultures. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2,500–3,000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, it was common to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in 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 god known as the "Lady of the Dead", corresponding to the modern Catrina.
In most regions of Mexico, November 1 honors children and infants, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1 mainly as Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") but also as Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels") and November 2 as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos ("Day of the Dead").
Many people believe that during the Day of the Dead, it is easier for the souls of the departed to visit the living. People go to cemeteries to communicate with the souls of the departed, and build private altars, containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.
Plans for the day are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods to be offered to the dead. During the two-day period, families usually clean and decorate graves; most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas (offerings), which often include orange marigolds called "cempasúchitl" (originally named cempoalxochitl, Nahuatl for "twenty (i.e., many) flowers"). In modern Mexico, this name is sometimes replaced with the term "Flor de Muerto" ("Flower of the Dead"). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings.
Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or "the little angels"), and bottles of tequila, mezcal or pulque or jars of atole for adults. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. The ofrendas are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the "spiritual essence" of the ofrendas food, so even though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so that the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In many places people have picnics at the gravesite as well.
Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes; these usually have the Christian cross, statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other persons, scores of candles and an ofrenda. Traditionally, families spend some time around the altar, praying and telling anecdotes about the deceased. In some locations, celebrants wear shells on their clothing, so that when they dance, the noise will wake up the dead; some will also dress up as the deceased.
Public schools at all levels build altars with ofrendas, usually omitting the religious symbols. Government offices usually have at least a small altar, as this holiday is seen as important to the Mexican heritage.
Those with a distinctive talent for writing sometimes create short poems, called "calaveras" ("skulls"), mocking epitaphs of friends, describing interesting habits and attitudes or funny anecdotes. This custom originated in the 18th-19th century, after a newspaper published a poem narrating a dream of a cemetery in the future, "and all of us were dead", proceeding to "read" the tombstones. Newspapers dedicate calaveras to public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of the famous calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator. Theatrical presentations of Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla (1817–1893) are also traditional on this day.
A common symbol of the holiday is the skull (colloquially called calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (colloquial term for "skeleton"), and foods such as sugar or chocolate skulls, which are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead. Sugar skulls are gifts that can be given to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes, from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits, for celebrating this "fiesta" often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.
José Guadalupe Posada created a famous print of a figure that he called "La Calavera de la Catrina" ("calavera of the female dandy"), as a parody of a Mexican upper class female. Posada’s striking image of a costumed female with a skeleton face has become associated with the Day of the Dead, and Catrina figures often are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead observances.
The traditions and activities that take place in celebration of the Day of the Dead are not universal and often vary from town to town. For example, in the town of Pátzcuaro on the Lago de Pátzcuaro in Michoacán the tradition is very different if the deceased is a child rather than an adult. On November 1 of the year after a child’s death, the godparents set a table in the parents’ home with sweets, fruits, pan de muerto, a cross, a Rosary (used to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for them) and candles. This is meant to celebrate the child’s life, in respect and appreciation for the parents. There is also dancing with colorful costumes, often with skull-shaped masks and devil masks in the plaza or garden of the town. At midnight on November 2, the people light candles and ride winged boats called mariposas (Spanish for "butterflies") to Janitzio, an island in the middle of the lake where there is a cemetery, to honor and celebrate the lives of the dead there.
In contrast, the town of Ocotepec, north of Cuernavaca in the State of Morelos opens its doors to visitors in exchange for ‘veladoras’ (small wax candles) to show respect for the recently dead. In return, the visitors receive tamales and ‘atole’. This is only done by the owners of the house where somebody in the household has died in the previous year. Many people of the surrounding areas arrive early to eat for free and enjoy the elaborate altars set up to receive the visitors from ‘Mictlán’.
In some parts of the country (especially the cities, where in recent years there are displaced other customs) children in costumes roam the streets, knocking on people’s doors, for a calaverita, a small gift of candies or money; they also ask passersby for it. This custom is similar to that of Halloween’s trick-or-treating, and is relatively recent.
Some people believe that possessing "Día de los Muertos" items can bring good luck. Many people get tattoos or have dolls of the dead to carry with them. They also clean their houses and prepare the favorite dishes of their deceased loved ones to place upon their altar or ofrenda.
Observances Outside of Mexico
Please check out the main Wikipedia article for more information on how this celebration was observed in the following countries:
- United States
- Latin America
- Europe, in countries with Roman Catholic heritage
- Asia, especially the Philippines
Please take time to further explore more about Halloween, Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos, All Souls’ Day, Aztec festival of Mictecacihuatl, and Día de los Difuntos by accessing the Wikipedia articles referenced below. In most cases, the text in the body of this post has been selectively excerpted from the articles; footnotes and hyperlinks have been removed for readability…
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Brainy Quote: Halloween Quotes…
Other Posts on related Topics:
Prof. Boerner’s Exploration: Revisiting the Archives: Halloween Holiday Traditions…
Prof. Boerner’s Exploration: Halloween Celebrations: “Day of the Dead”…