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by Ryan Dowling


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Day of the Dead: A Look into Día de los Muertos

by Ryan Dowling


Day of the Dead A Look into Día de los Muertos

by Ryan Dowling


The Day of the Dead is a multi-day holiday primarily observed in Mexico but with similar variations occurring in many other countries as well.

During this holiday, families and friends gather to pay their respects and celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed away.

The holiday is typically joyous rather than solemn, and is accompanied by parades, costumes, dancing, decorative altars and unique foods such as sweet breads and skulls made from sugar.

Day of the Dead Catrina

How to Say Day of the Dead in Spanish

In Spanish, Day of the Dead translates to Día de los Muertos (pronounced dee-uh dey low-s muh-where-toes). It is sometimes shortened to Día de Muertos. 

When is Day of the Dead?

The festivities are usually carried out over the course of three days (October 31 - November 2) which, in Christianity, are collectively referred to as Allhallowtide.

October 31st  is All Saints’ Eve (also known as Halloween), which is the night when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest.

November 1st , known as All Saints’ Day, is dedicated to Christian saints and martyrs, but in Mexico is also celebrated as Día de los Angelitos, or Day of the Little Angels—a day specially reserved for parents to pay tribute to the spirits of deceased children.

However, it is November 2nd, or All Souls’ Day, which is the proper Day of the Dead, when Christians traditionally give pause to commemorate those who have passed on.

Church with Marigold for Day of the Dead

What are the Origins of The Day of the Dead?

The earliest traces of The Day of the Dead date all the way back to the Aztec empire, but little is known about it and it is possibly even much older than that.

Among the pantheon of Aztec gods was a goddess named Mictecacihuatl, or “Lady of the Dead,” who ruled over the underworld and the dead that inhabited it.

The ancient Aztecs dedicated not three days, but almost an entire month—around the time of late July and early August —to the worship of this goddess. 

It wasn’t until the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors invaded and colonized the Aztec empire that these indigenous rituals were fused with Christianity.

Although the dates of these celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian Allhallowtide and many of their practices were lost, the Aztecs fought to preserve as much of their traditions and culture as they could.

The result of this struggle is the Día de los Muertos we know today.

Day of the Dead Catrina

What is Day of the Dead?

The Day of the Dead is a primarily Mexican holiday during which the living treat their beloved dead as guests of honor and go to great lengths to pay homage to them.

Perhaps the most iconic part of the celebration are the candlelit vigils commonly held on November 2nd.

However, the majority of the traditions are not nearly as solemn: Jokes, stories and a literary form of mock epitaphs called literary calaveras are exchanged over burial grounds, celebratory music fills the cemeteries, and people in brightly colored costumes and face painting dance their hearts out with smiles on their faces.

Gravesites are repaired, manicured, tidied up and strewn with fresh flowers among other decorations. There is even an enormous parade that takes place in the center of Mexico City, although this a much newer tradition.

Another important element of Day of the Dead are altars called ofrendas (literally “offerings” in English), which are constructed to welcome the dead back among the living.

Marigold Flowers For Day of the Dead

Marigold Flowers For Day of the Dead

Common offerings placed on these altars include sugar skulls, sweet bread, various arts and crafts, marigold flowers, personal belongings and anything else the dearly departed may have valued during their time on earth.

Sometimes even a mirror, soap and a bowl of water are left for the dead to clean themselves up with upon returning.

These offerings are meant not only to entice the dead back to the realm of the living but also to facilitate their homecoming.

A Day of the Dead Alter (in progress) For TPV Puerto Vallarta, a Mexican business.

A Day of the Dead Alter (in progress) For TPV Puerto Vallarta Airport Transportation, a Mexican business.  

How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar

Day of the Dead altars, also known as an ofrendas, are typically made up of several “steps.”

The lowest step is usually decorated with candles, copal incense and marigolds.

Each of these carries symbolic importance and serves a role in aiding the dead’s transition back to the realm of the living.

The candles, for instance, are supposed to act as beacons guiding the dead home, while the copal incense cleanses the air through which the spirits travel. 

The middle steps are typically dedicated to personal belongings as well as food and drink.

Here you would often place the sugar skulls, also known as calaveras, the sweet bread called pan de muerto, and any drinks that might quench their thirst after their long journey home.

For children, it is common to leave out candy and toys. For adults, one might leave out beer, tequila or mezcal, depending on what the deceased preferred in life. 

The top step is traditionally reserved for a photograph of the deceased, and sometimes even effigies of saints and martyrs that might bear some significance to them.

The steps are usually adorned with papel picado, a type of colorful perforated paper popular in Mexico. It is important to note that there is no right or wrong way to make an ofrendra.

They can be as creative and elaborate or as simple and straightforward as one likes.

Mezcal's Link to Day of the Dead

In traditional celebrations such as Day of the Dead, it is not uncommon to share mezcal between friends and family. This is especially true in mezcal-producing villages and other towns nearby.

Day of the Dead Coco 

Day of the Dead Appropriated in Modern Culture

Thanks to movies like Coco and social media influencers who have sexualized the Catrina dress and face paint, Día de los Muertos has become increasingly prominent in mainstream culture.

As such, it has sparked a point of contention between those who celebrate the holiday as a dignified homage to the dead and those who reduce it to a Halloween costume with no more depth than a slasher film.

Though celebrated at a similar time, it is important to note that Halloween and Día de los Muertos are not at all synonymous. 

While some Latinos take offense to the commercialization of their sacred holiday, others rejoice at seeing their culture represented in the mainstream.

The latter, of course, hope that a broader audience will take the time to open up to their culture, educate themselves and maybe even take a moment to pay homage to their own dead the next time October 31st comes around.

Sources:

https://www.uchealth.org/today/how-to-celebrate-day-of-the-dead/#:~:text=Day%20of%20the%20Dead%20is,and%20 celebrations%20at%20home%20 graveyards

https://www.howtopronounce.com/dia-de-los-muertos

https://www.christianity.com/wiki/holidays/what-difference-between-halloween-all-saints-day-and-all-souls-day.htm

https://danestrom.com/dia-de-los-angelitos-remembering-children-day-dead/

https://www.unm.edu/~htafoya/dayofthedead.html

https://theconversation.com/day-of-the-dead-from-aztec-goddess-worship-to-modern-mexican-celebration-124962

https://www.tor.com/2019/10/31/drinking-mezcal-with-the-dead-celebrating-dia-de-los-muertos/

https://theconversation.com/day-of-the-dead-from-aztec-goddess-worship-to-modern-mexican-celebration-124962

https://theculturetrip.com/mexico/articles/day-of-the-dead-in-mexico-10-traditions-customs/

https://mexicotravel.blog/day-of-the-dead-in-mexico-city/

https://www.tor.com/2019/10/31/drinking-mezcal-with-the-dead-celebrating-dia-de-los-muertos/

https://www.tor.com/2019/10/31/drinking-mezcal-with-the-dead-celebrating-dia-de-los-muertos/

https://www.9news.com/article/life/holidays/halloween/how-to-make-an-altar-for-dia-de-los-muertos/73-f5706370-b346-437b-9dad-5e56f7d0332c

https://www.tor.com/2019/10/31/drinking-mezcal-with-the-dead-celebrating-dia-de-los-muertos/

https://www.popsugar.com/beauty/day-of-the-dead-makeup-cultural-appropriation-47804284

https://thebolditalic.com/dia-de-los-muertos-appropriation-or-appreciation-the-bold-italic-san-francisco-ae219141912

Sincerely,

Greg Rutkowski, President Mezcal For Life

Greg Rutkowski, President of Mezcal For Life

Greg is a certified Agave Spirits Advisor and Mezcal Sommelier through the Agave Spirits Institute. He contributes to a number of agave spirits projects inside Mexico including Raicilla tours and also his agave spirits distillery in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco.

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