Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is celebrated in Mexico between October 31st and November 2nd. It is a holiday in which Mexicans remember and honor their deceased loved ones. Though it may sound gloomy or morbid, it’s not. It’s a festive and colorful holiday. Mexicans visit cemeteries, decorate the graves and spend time there, in the presence of their deceased friends and family members. They also make elaborately decorated altars (called ofrendas) in their homes to welcome the spirits.
Because of its importance as a defining aspect of Mexican culture and the unique aspects of the celebration which have been passed down through generations, Mexico’s indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead was recognized by UNESCO as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2008.
Background & Origins
The first month-long celebrations around El Dia de los Muertos originated from July through mid-August thousands of years ago—with the Aztecs, who marked their commemorative ritual of the dead and rebirth, centering on Lady of the Dead, Mictecacihuatl. Under Spaniard influence (when they invaded in 1519, they saw the original rituals as sacrilegious), Catholic tradition crept into the celebrations, and the celebratory events moved on the calendar to coincide with All-Saint’s Day/All-Soul’s Day (the Oct/Nov split).
While the more modern versions of the Day of the Dead may appear to be the same as (or similar to) Halloween and the religious versions, the traditions are starkly different. Yes, skeletons appear in Halloween collectibles, but the colorful flavor and fervor of the Day-of-the-Dead skeletons aren’t intended to inspire fear or terror. Instead, the skeletons are entertaining, family-oriented and commemorative.
The prayers, displays and celebrations are calls to the departed to come join in the festivities.
The spirits are greeted with offerings of special foods and things that the person enjoyed in life. These are laid out on an altar in the family home. It is believed that the spirits consume the essence and the aroma of the foods that are offered. When the spirits depart, the living consume the food and share it with their family, friends and neighbors.
Other items that are placed on the altar include sugar skulls, often with the person’s name inscribed on the top, pan de muertos, a special bread that is made especially for the season, and cempasuchil (marigolds) which bloom at this time of year and lend a special fragrance to the altar. In October, you’ll see skeletons everywhere, but while it’s easy to find macabre skeletal items, El Dia de los Muertos collectibles have a comic folk-art look-and-feel.
They’re not usually considered the terrifying Halloween collectibles, and aren’t what a collector would consider a “realistic” representation of skeletons.
The most authentic collectibles are handmade folk-art creations from Mexico, and you’ll find galleries, exhibitions and displays of El Dia de los Muertos items throughout Puerto Vallarta.
Who is Catrina?
You’ve seen her – the fancy dead lady usually all dressed up with her hat and her flowers. She is Catrina and a relatively new cultural icon in the long history of Mexican icons. Created as a satirical commentary on the rich, Mexican artist, José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), created a famous drawing of a skull wearing a fancy woman’s hat. He named it ,or “her,” La Calavera de la Catrina.
The rich were less likely to succumb to the diseases and malnutrition that ravaged the poor, but they were ultimately no more immune from death than anyone else. Posada’s powerful, yet humorous, image of the skeletal rich woman, a dead woman who could not buy immortality, became the inspiration for the iconic figure you see today.
Catrina was resurrected by French artist and art historian Jean Charlot shortly after the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s. La Catrina soon gained iconic status as a symbol of uniquely Mexican art and now plays a significant role in Día de los Muertos festivities. She can be found in many forms in the shops around Mexico, from delicate clay figurines to paintings and masks.
Originally published in Mexi-Go!
Dia de los Muertos Altars
You will see a number of altars big and small around town in the coming weeks. Here are some of the key elements of typical altars and their cultural significance.
Made from long sugar cane stalks, and decorated with flowers, the arch represents the passage between life and death.
A photo of the person to whom the altar is dedicated is usually found the top level of the altar, in the center. If the altar is dedicated to more than one person, there can be several photos, or if it altar is not dedicated to anyone in particular, the photo can be omitted and it will be understood that the altar is in honor of all their ancestors.
You will usually find a glass of water on the altar. Water is a source of life and represents purity. It quenches the thirst of the spirits.
Candles represent light, faith and hope. The flame guides the spirits on their journey. Sometimes four or more candles are placed together to form a cross which represents the cardinal directions, so that the spirits can find their way.
An abundance of flowers often decorate altars; flowers in vases or scattered petals over all the surfaces of the altar. The bright colors of the marigolds and their fragrance are synonymous with Day of the Dead. Fresh flowers remind us of the impermanence of life.
Fruit, bread and food
Seasonal fruits and special bread calledpan de muertos are usually placed on the altar, along with other foods that the person enjoyed in life. Mexicans usually place tamales, mole and hot chocolate on the altar. The food is a feast that is laid out for the spirits to enjoy. It is believed that they consume the scents and the essence of the food.
It is customary to burn copal incense, which clears the space of any negative energy or bad spirits, and helps the dead find their way.