Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a cultural celebration that in recent years has gained popularity in the United States. Bright and festively adorned plastic skulls can be found everywhere from Walmart to Trader Joe’s, while “sugar skull” costumes abound during the month of October. Despite the growing popularity of the festivities and their symbols, both within and outside of the U.S. Latinx community, not very many people really know the meaning of the celebration. Some describe Day of the Dead as a “Mexican Halloween.” It is not.
Halloween as we know it, and Día de los Muertos, handle the notion of death in almost opposite ways. While Halloween capitalizes on gore and fear of death, Day of the Dead is a celebration of life, the inevitability of death, and the fact that you can’t have one without the other.
“The Day of the Dead is a day of connection, remembrance and love — for and with — those who have died (‘the ancestors’),” said Kristin Norget, author of Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca. “Halloween is completely lacking this important dimension.”
“This was a time to honor, remember and nourish the souls of the family members who had passed. It was also a reminder of the finite nature of bodily life and a time to celebrate it.”
To better understand Day of the Dead traditions, we must discuss its roots. While historians and anthropologists offer many diverging analyses, most agree that our modern renditions are a combination of Catholic rituals with spiritual practices of the indigenous people of the regions we now know as Mexico, Central America, and some parts of South America.
Pre-colonization, indigenous groups shared a fundamental belief in an immortal entity that gave each person its conscience – what we might think of as the soul. After the body’s death, this entity would journey on to different realms, Mictlán being the main one, for those who died from old age or a common illness. Other realms include, Tonatiuhichan, for those who died in battle or during the battle of childbirth; Tlalocán, for those who died by water or lightning; and Chichihuacuauhco for children who could not yet care for themselves.
After death, it was believed that the deceased periodically visited their family in the realm of the living. Cempazuchitl, a type of Marigold flower native to the southern regions of Mexico, was used for its strong and distinctive scent as a way to guide the souls back to their loved ones. The family prepared a feast of food and drink to receive the visitors. Oftentimes the family also laid out sweets and toys for the kids. Some groups also brought out tools or other objects that the person favored in life. This was a time to honor, remember and nourish the souls of the family members who had passed. It was also a reminder of the finite nature of bodily life and a time to celebrate it.
Before colonization, the celebration of the dead was held during present day August – the time of harvests and abundance. It spanned a whole month as was measured by the indigenous people- equivalent to approximately 20 days. Today, we celebrate Día de los Muertos on November 1st and November 2nd. The first day is to remember the children or the innocent. The second day is designated for all others to coincide with Día de Todos los Santos, Day of all Saints of the Catholic church. Depending on who tells the story, this current iteration is described as a happy merging of cultures where the Indigenous and the European Catholics simply united their traditions into one.
Another account might talk about the indigenous peoples’ resistance to abandon this important part of their spiritual belief system, despite the violent Christianization of all aspects of their lives. Furthermore, according to Stanley Brandes, professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, it is likely that Day of the Dead became even more important “as a by-product of the enormous loss of life during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” So concerned was the crown with the celebration of death, that In 1766, the Royal Criminal Chamber prohibited visits to cemeteries. It is likely that the indigenous people decided to disguise their celebration of the dead by shifting it to the new dates that purported to celebrate Saints, and by incorporating some of the elements of the colonizer’s imposition.
“The traditions of the original Días de los Muertos took on new elements to disguise, bend and twist, but ultimately to survive and transcend the physical and spiritual genocide of a people.”
Today, the altars that are part of Día de los Muertos continue to offer food and drink for the souls of the visitors. It will often also include Catholic religious images, accompanied by figurines of Coatlicue, an indigenous deity who represents life, death and rebirth. Families will mutter Catholic prayers while ceremonial copal and sage are burned on the foot of the altar or at the tombstone in the cemetery. Families might arrange cempazuchitl petals in the shape of a cross and place colorful sugar skulls at the altars.
While many ancient cultures around the world have rendered tribute to death (i.e. ancient Egypt), what is remarkable about the Day of the Dead is the fact that it has survived despite the passing of time. The traditions of the original Días de los Muertos took on new elements to disguise, bend and twist, but ultimately to survive and transcend the physical and spiritual genocide of a people.
Perhaps this is why the Day of the Dead traditions are growing in the U.S.: a celebration that was intended to commemorate the life of individuals has come to symbolize the life and resilience of a People. Against all odds, the traditions of the most marginalized people in Mexico and Central America continue to exist and thrive- a lesson appealing to many in the U.S. Latinx community who work to do exactly that.
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