Since the premiere of Disney and Pixar’s Coco, it seems as though the interest in Dia de los Muertos has exploded across the world. There are more articles, videos, and the like about this holiday on the internet than ever before. The movie does a good job of explaining the importance of the holiday and showing how people in Mexico prepare for it, but doesn’t go much further than that. So let’s go a little more in depth as to what Dia de los Muertos is all about, why it’s important, and what traditions surround it.
What is Dia de los Muertos?
Dia de los Muertos translates into Day of the Dead in English, and that’s it in a nutshell. The day is all about the dead, and celebrating their lives here on Earth. Dia de los Muertos takes place on the first and second days of November, and is generally more widely celebrated in central and southern Mexico. It originates in part from the traditions of the indigenous people of that area and their celebrations to the Lady of the Dead, an Aztec goddess. When the Spanish colonized the area and brought with them Catholicism, they tried to erase and replace the traditions of the indigenous people with their own. What happened instead was the people blending together both sets of beliefs to create what we know of now as Dia de los Muertos.
Nowadays, Dia de los Muertos is a day that celebrates the lives of the people who have gone before us as they cross through the veil to be with us once more.
There are many traditions associated with this holiday, with including:
Grave Cleaning and Decorating
Families will go to the cemetery in the morning and clean the graves of their family and friends in preparations for the night’s festivities. This includes getting rid of any weeds, washing the tombstone, and decorating with fresh flowers, papel picado, the deceased favorite foods, candles, etc. While the real festivities don’t begin until nightfall, some families might contract a mariachi trio to sing at the grave during the day as people are preparing. If a family only has one cemetery to visit they might spend the whole day there, leaving well into the night.
In the home, a family will build an ofrenda for their loved ones. Unique to each family, there are elements that all ofrendas share. Pictures of the deceased are placed all around the altar, along with flowers, food, drinks, candles, and items that they loved, owned, or are representative of the things they enjoyed in life.
Called Cempasuchil in Spanish, this is the flower that reigns supreme during Dia de Los Muertos. They are said to guide the dead back to their families because of their bright color and strong smell. In Coco the role of marigolds during Dia de los Muertos is only further emphasized by their use as a literal bridge between the living and the dead.
La Catrina y El Catrin
People will paint themselves as skeletons, wearing everything from the traditional clothes of their region to European clothes from the early 1900’s to just their normal everyday clothes. While La Catrina, with her long dress and large hat, created by Jose Guadalupe Posada in the early 1910s and made popular by Diego Rivera in the mid 1900s. They are representative of humanity, that despite what you might wear in the end we all wear the same set of bones.
This is also a good place to mention sugar skulls!
You’ve probably seen these around! They’re skulls that have been decorated with paints in a variety of designs to be placed on people’s ofrendas. You can find actual sugar skulls that are meant for eating but you can also find ones that are purely for decorative purposes.
Food plays an important role in Dia de los Muertos. Both at the ofrenda and the grave, families leave offerings of food to their dead. This can be as simple as bread and water, or can include the foods the dead enjoyed in life. Some common food and drinks you might see are pan dulce, pan de muertos, tamales, atole, tequila, and various types of candies.
Dia de Muertos has seen a resurgence in popularity over the last decade or so, as people have gained a renewed love and appreciation for the traditions of the past. Depending on the size of the city and town the Dia de Muertos celebrations can start a week before the day actually comes.
For example, my family is from a small town in Michoacan and last year we were fortunate enough to be able to take part in Dia de los Muertos. We arrived the week before and there was already a schedule of events posted at city hall. Each school had a parade at some point during the week, with each class having their own float and theme. The park next to town had live music and performers, and ofrendas all along the lake edge. The lanchas (small boats) that are available for rides on the lake were decorated with marigolds and streamers. There were vendors alongside the usual shops and eateries available at the lake selling souvenirs and flower crowns. The main plaza in town also had local vendors create ofrendas in the middle of the plaza.
On Day of the Dead people started heading to the cemetery early in the morning and there were mariachis singing to different graves. A priest arrived at night to say a prayer for the dead that were being celebrated. One of the local high schools is located at the top of a hill and each class created huge and elaborate ofrendas. They all could recite the history of the person they were celebrating and the history of the day as well. At the entrance they had made a wall of memories, where they invited everyone attending to write the name of their loved ones to hang up in the wall.
Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful holiday, and I’m glad I was able to experience it in Mexico for myself to celebrate with and for the family I have there.