Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos, is a holiday celebrated in Mexico on November 1st and 2nd of each year. The holiday coincides with with All Saint’s Day, a Catholic holiday. Those that celebrate Day of the Dead believe that at midnight on October 31, the gates of heaven open and all spirits of deceased children are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. Then on November 2, the spirits of adults are allowed to reunite with their families and enjoy the festivities that have been prepared for them. Dia de Los Muertos is a public holiday in Mexico.
Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico date back to Pre-Columbian cultures and their ancient traditions. These civilizations performed rituals that eventually developed into modern Day of the Dead festivities. The ancient rituals observed by these civilizations are thought to have taken place for at least two thousand years. By the late 20th century in Mexico, practices that honored the dead were celebrated on November 1 and 2, as opposed to in August, when ancient civilizations observed similar rituals.
During Dia de Los Muertos, people go to cemeteries so they can spend time with the souls of their deceased loved ones. Many families build altars for their loved ones either at the cemetery or in their private homes. The altars are decorated with photos, and memorabilia and act as a place to display the deceased person’s favorites beverages and foods. One very common treat made during Day of the Dead celebrations is pan de muerto, a rich, sweet bread that can be elaborately decorated. The altars also often contain Christian crosses and pictures or statues of the Virgin Mary. Altars can be very elaborate and people often spend a full month’s salary on their construction. Traditionally, once the altars are completed, families will spend time praying at them and telling stories of the deceased. Celebrations can vary depending on the region of Mexico. Some families will dress up as the deceased while others will wear shells on their clothes so that when they dance, the dead will hear the noise and wake up. Altars are even constructed at schools, although they usually omit the religious symbols. Dia de Los Muertos is such an important holiday for those of Mexican heritage that government offices typically have small altars, as well.
Sometimes family members that write well will create short poems which are called calaveras (skulls). These short poems can describe interesting habits, mock epitaphs, and provide funny anecdotes. This custom did not originate until the 18th or 19th century. During that time, newspapers would publish poems and, even today, newspapers dedicate calaveras to different public figures. The poems are normally accompanied by cartoons of skeletons. Skeletons are a prominent feature in Day of the Dead observances. A man by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada, a well known Mexican illustrator, created a print of a figure he called La Calavera Catrina. The print was meant to be a parody of an upper class Mexican female but the image has since become associated with Dia de Los Muertos. Skull masks are worn during celebrations, and foods such as chocolate or sugar skulls are intricately decorated. Sugar skulls are even given as gifts to both the dead and the living.
Dia de Los Muertos activities and traditions vary from town to town in Mexico. Activities and traditions vary further when the holiday is observed outside of Mexico in places such as other Latin American countries, the United States, and Europe. There are several other holidays observed around the world that are similar in nature to Dia de Los Muertos, as well. These include the Qingming Festival in China, the Bon Festival in Japan, and Chuseok in Korea. Anyone interested in learning more about Dia de Los Muertos and other similar holidays can explore the following pages.