The Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated on November 1 and 2 in Mexico and other countries. It is a joyful holiday honoring those that have passed on. Day of the Dead traditions are rich in a mixed history of the ancient Aztec, the Spaniard Conquistadors and contemporary Mexican culture.
This holiday helps people to embrace death as a part of life.
Death is not seen as a tragedy, but as a part of life. It’s a part of life that can be made fun of, and in so doing, be made more palatable and possible to accept. By creating beautiful and artistic altars honoring the deceased, cooking and baking traditional foods, and celebrating with family and friends, this holiday lives on today.
The History of Day of the Dead
Prepare the mind to look back more than 3000 years to the ancient Aztecs of what is now modern day Mexico. Imagine a celebration lasting more than a month that brings light to death and allows a time and space to honor those that have died. Imagine feeling not fear but acceptance and readiness for death, knowing it is simply the next phase of life. Look around. People are collecting skulls, laughing and telling stories of the deceased, while sharing in rituals as they prepare for a visit from their dead loved ones.
Fast-forward another 2,500 years to when the Spanish arrived to colonize modern day Mexico. Imagine a group of Catholic missionaries watching what they understood to be pagan savages laughing as they mocked death and the dead. Imagine that the missionaries believed they knew best as they attempted to eradicate a tradition they understood to be as barbaric as its practitioners. Imagine a culture and a people so strong that they could not be erased.
The modern continuation of this ancient and holy practice is what we call The Day of the Dead or Dia de Los Muertos. When the Conquistadors could not put a stop to the month-long August ritual, they moved it to coincide with All Saints Days and All Souls Day, celebrated on November 1 and 2 respectively. We continue to celebrate the Day of the Dead on November 1 and 2. There are many other examples of how the traditions of the Day of the Dead are a mixture of the Aztec and Mexican cultures and the Catholic mission.
How to Create a Day of the Dead Altar
In Mexico, people build altars in homes or at cemeteries. They are decorated not for beauty’s sake but rather with specific and meaningful items that the dead enjoy. My Mexican friend Arturo says, for him, holding this belief is like believing in Santa.
According to Mexican Editorial organization El Heraldo de Tabasco, there are seven layers to a Day of the Dead altar, each layer having it’s own significance. The soul must pass through all seven levels to eventually rest in peace. The beautiful altars are works of art, decorated as described below:
- First layer: A photo or depiction of a Saint or Virgin
- Second layer: A photo or depiction of the Souls of Purgatory
- Third: Salt for the children of Purgatory
- Fourth: Pan de Muerto, a special bread decorated with red sugar to represent blood.
- Fifth: The favorite foods and beverages of the deceased
- Sixth: A photo of the deceased
- Seventh: A cross and rosary
There are altar items that correspond with each of the four elements.
- Fire: Candles
- Wind: Tissue paper designs (Because Tissue paper has fluidity of movement)
- Water: A glass of water
- Earth: Fruits, Marigold flowers
Also commonly found on the altars are sugar skulls, trinkets the deceased enjoyed such as toys or books, Copal or other incense, and religious items. Marigolds, which are vibrant yellow and orange flowers, are place on altars to represent death and decay.
It is worth noting the mixed cultures of this holiday when viewing and analyzing the Dia de Los Muertos altars. Some of items hail from a Christian influence, such as the rosary and Saints. The Pan de los Muertos and sugar skulls are examples of items that are traditions from the indigenous Aztec people. Explore the meaning of the altars more closely by asking from which lineage each item hails.
How to Celebrate and Honor the Day of the Dead
As a rich resource for this part of the article, I interviewed several Mexican friends. I learned about the traditions they did in school and at home as children, and the ones they continue to participate in to this day.
Making Rhymes: Calaveras Literarias
Calaveras Literarias are poems made for the Day of the Dead; the phrase means Literary Skulls. My friend Aurora told me that she despised making them as a kid but looks back now and smiles fondly on the memory. Aurora told me that the Calaveras Literarias should make readers laugh, be satirical and catchy, and rhyme. Another friend that hails from Mexico, Pepe, said Calaveras are, “like urban poetry written on the Day of the Dead to make fun of the living and remind us of our mortality... It's cooler than it sounds and it's basically what I love about Mexico... we like to make fun of everything.“ The lighthearted nature of this Day of the Dead Tradition really comes through in Pepe’s words. I was able to find this Calavera poem in English.
“Soon will be The Day of the Dead/ Nobody in the class will survive/ If they don’t think with their head/ Looking for a way to stay alive.
In Mexico we have our traditions/ We love to eat lots of beans/ But if you want false superstitions/ You better celebrate Halloween.”
I took a stab at my own, too.
“Enjoy the Superstitions/ On the Day of the Dead/ Celebrating the Traditions/ Of making red candy skull heads
You better wash your hands/ Messy as they become/ Or Grim Reaper may demand/ To take your soul home.”
Make your own calavera poem for this year’s Day of the Dead!
Make Sugar Skulls
The Sugar Skull is a labor-intensive candy that is intricately adorned. The candies are made for the altars and also for the children to enjoy. We made these when I was studying Mexico in Middle School and it was a blast. Try it with your loved ones.
It has become a popular tradition in the United States to do Day of the Dead face paint on Halloween. Perhaps you have witnessed the beautiful and ornate body art. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxhER5cnwrE) Check out a face paint tutorial and try your own this year.
Beautiful Tapestries of flowers
In Oaxaca, Mexico, my friend Daniela told me that there are huge, intricate tapetes or tapestries made of flowers or colored sand. They are placed on public display and can include depictions of skeletons, or other images associated with the holiday.
Blankets and Pillows for the Dead
In homes, people leave cozy and cuddly things out for the weary dead loved ones to enjoy as they return on their annual visit to the world of the living.
Ofrendas or Food Offerings
The table is set with a place for each deceased person. Their favorite food is made and left out over night for them to enjoy on their visit.
Why You Should Embrace the Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead, rich in cultural significance, is now more widely celebrated across Mexico and the globe than ever before. Embracing Dia de los Muertos might be the opportunity you and your loved ones need to bring laughter and lightness to the subject of death. Death is inevitable for each and every one of us living today. Yet so many of us lack the skills and attitude to handle it with grace and ease. We can all learn something from this ancient tradition by learning to laugh at death.
Embracing the Day of the Dead can offer a cathartic celebration of love for those we once knew and a reminder of what made them unique, what they loved and why we loved them. The traditions and attitudes we get from the Day of the Dead can help us to prepare for our own inevitable passing, and to approach it with lightness of heart. You do not need to be of Mexican or Aztec decent to take part in the celebrations. To embark on your own Day of the Dead journey, prepare yourself and your loved ones. Learn about some of the traditions and take part in the ones most appealing to you. Find out where you can join an authentic Dia de los Muertos experience and attend. Happy celebrating.