What is the Day of the Dead and how is the Mexican holiday celebrated?



MEXICO CITY – The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is one of Mexico’s most important celebrations, with roots dating back thousands of years, long before the arrival of Spanish settlers. It has become a blend of Catholic tradition and Mexican mysticism, commemorating death as another element of life and as a way to remember and honor loved ones.

In bustling markets, stalls sell skulls decorated with sugar or chocolate, while tissue paper, cut into delicate shapes, adorns shops and restaurants. In homes across the country, families carefully place photographs of their ancestors on an altar next to candles and a traditional Mexican pastry, as incense fills the air. In flower shops, freshly cut marigolds line storefronts.

The party is a rich and complex tradition that has increasingly infiltrated popular culture around the world.

It is observed on November 2, when all souls of the dead are expected to return to the world of the living. But the celebration usually begins on October 28, with each day dedicated to a different type of death: people who died in accidents or children who died before being baptized, for example. All Saints’ Day, November 1, honors all those who have led a pure life, especially children.

It is primarily a Mexican tradition, but other Catholic countries around the world honor the deceased as well. In the Philippines, relatives visit the graves of the dead, bring flowers and light candles. In Brazil, there is Dia de Finados. And in many other countries, including the United States, November 2 is also recognized as the Day of the Dead, when Catholics remember and pray for the dead.

The holiday has its origins in indigenous cultures dating back thousands of years, particularly influenced by the Aztec or Mexican people. In Aztec culture, death was transient and the souls of the dead could return to visit the living. At least two major festivals in the fall would celebrate the dead and invite them to return to the world of the living. After the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, these traditions were incorporated into the Catholic calendar and are now celebrated to coincide with the Day of the Dead.

Celebrations vary by region, but some elements tend to be universal. People usually place pictures of deceased loved ones on an ofrenda or altar, along with their favorite food or drink. In some parts of the country, like the state of Morelos, families open their doors to anyone interested in seeing the altar, offering them food like pan de muerto, a traditional Mexican pastry, and atole, a corn-based drink. On November 2, many go to cemeteries to place flowers, candles and other offerings on graves.

As the tradition’s worldwide popularity has grown, especially with Hollywood films like “Coco” and “The Book of Life,” the festivities have grown larger and more elaborate.

After the 2015 James Bond film “Specter” featured an elaborate Day of the Dead parade meandering through downtown Mexico City, officials staged a live version, which included dancers in bright costumes and floats with images of giant skulls. The parade has since become a major tourist attraction for the capital, with 2.6 million participants in 2019.

In the United States, cities with large Mexican populations like Los Angeles, Chicago and San Antonio also hold celebrations, including parades, exhibitions and street fairs.

Altars normally have multiple levels: two levels symbolize earth and sky, three levels can represent heaven, earth and purgatory, while seven levels signify the seven steps to enter the Hereafter, or the Seven Sins. capital.

Each ofrenda includes elements that are supposed to correspond to the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. Ash or dirt usually replaces soil. A glass of water allows spirits to quench their thirst after a long journey, and intricately carved tissue paper is commonly used to represent air. Candles signify fire, helping to guide the house of the dead.


The altars also often feature small sugar or chocolate skulls, as well as a pan de muerto, a pastry with a pair of crossbones on top covered in sugar. For altars to children, some place a small stuffed dog while a woven rug offers souls a resting place. Food, drink, or other favorite items of the dead are also important, along with copal, a kind of incense to clean the space.

The most important flower is marigold, although its meaning varies. Its bright yellow petals are said to represent the sun and serve as a guide for the souls of the dead to return home. Other important flowers include the white baby’s breath, which can represent purity, as well as the bright red velvet flower, which often add a touch of color to ofrendas.

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