We have been very lucky to travel the world for work, for a reality show and just for fun. When we travel, we make sure that we can learn as much as we can about the history and culture of where we visit. One cultural tradition that we’ve been learning about a lot lately is Dia de Los Muertos and how it has become a touchstone of Mexico’s history.
For the uninitiated, Dia de Los Muertos aka the Day of the Dead is a holiday that is meant to celebrate life and encourage others to not be scared of death. It is usually celebrated throughout Mexico with a two-day festival that takes place on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1st and 2nd.)
Dia de Los Muertos is based on a mixture of Aztec and Catholic rituals but the exact rituals involved varies by region. In some areas of Mexico, this holiday mixes Catholic and Mayan rituals, and is called “Hanal Pixan.” This holiday is like an extended version of Dia de Los Muertos. Instead of being celebrated over two days, it starts on October 26th and lasts throughout November.
Even though many know of and celebrate Dia de Los Muertos now, it didn’t become a widely celebrated event until the 1980s. Before then, it was primarily celebrated by rural, working-class communities. Since funds were scarcer in these areas, celebrations were more subdued. Celebrations would happen at the nearby church, then families would continue with an intimate, simple celebration at home. As rural families moved towards more urban areas and brought their traditions with them, the holiday began to grow into what it is today.
Dia de Los Muertos is a very lively (pun intended) holiday and is heavy on symbols and rituals. Relatives of the deceased start celebrating the holidays by cleaning the gravesite of their loved one. This can involve washing the tombstone, sweeping and mopping (if they are buried in a mausoleum or crypt) and planting fresh flowers around the gravesite. For those that celebrate Hanal Pixan, the Mayan tradition of bone washing commences. This means that the family of the deceased will exhume the bones, clean and wash them, then place the bones in a wooden box to be reburied.
When everything is squeaky clean, ofrendas can then be built. These are altars created to honor the dead are created around the deceased’s gravesite or assembled in a relative’s home. They are decorated with items that the deceased individual would have loved, like books, pieces of clothing and their favorite food and beverages. Traditional treats that decorate ofrendas are calaveras de azúcar (commonly referred to as sugar skulls), candles, flowers (usually marigolds), and pan de muertos, a sweet bread flavored with anise seed. Alebrijes, brightly colored sculptures of animals and people, and papel picado, tissue paper banners, will also adorn the ofrenda.
Mariachi bands, with band members wearing outfits or accessories that make noise, will play throughout the city. This is meant to wake the dead and let them know that it’s time to come visit. Many people will paint their faces and dress in costumes to look like calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). One specific costume frequently seen at these celebrations is La Catrina, a calavera modeled after the fashion wealthy women wore in the early 20th century.
If you’re looking to learn more about Dia de Los Muertos, we recommend watching the Pixar movie Coco. If you haven’t watched Coco, the basic plot summary is Miguel, a 12-year-old boy who dreams of being a musician is forbidden by his family to pursue his dream. His family knows what happens when you try to pursue fame and fortune, and the effects of that pursuit have scarred his family for generations. On Dia de Los Muertos, Miguel ends up being transported to the Land of the Dead and reconnecting with his family and his roots. It’s a great way to teach yourself and young ones about the symbols and meanings behind this important holiday.
The most key aspect that we can take away from this holiday isn’t the ofrendas, the bright costumes or great music. At its core, Dia de Los Muertos is a holiday meant to celebrate the dead. Relatives shares stories about their deceased loved ones to make sure that their spirit and history is never forgotten. It’s a way to remember who and where we came from.
Books and statues are physical ways to remember our history, but nothing will beat the intimacy and joy that comes from sitting the next generation down and sharing your memories.