El Dia de Los Muertos: The Day of the Dead

The Mexican people have a beautiful tradition surrounding their loved ones who have passed on. El Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, has its roots deep in history, perhaps dating as far back as Aztec times, and has evolved into a national holiday throughout the country as well as other parts of the world. In ancient times, people believed the heavens opened on October 31st, allowing the spirits of deceased children to come back and visit with their relatives for twenty-four hours. Today, the holiday has changed and expanded into a two day affair.

Calaveras Dia de los Muertos

November 1st is the day to celebrate deceased children, inocentes or angelitos, and the 2nd is the day that adults are celebrated by their families. It’s important to understand that in the Mexican culture, death is not feared but rather considered a part of the normal life cycle. On this holiday, people are celebrating the lives of their relatives who’ve passed away — not grieving them. One popular tradition is to create an ofrenda or offering for the loved one, which is similar to a small altar showcasing a picture of the deceased relative. It is a place where family members can gather, pray for them and remember their lives.

Ofrenda Dia de los Muertos

Ofrendas are adorned with the deceased relative’s favorite foods, marigolds (Flor de Muerto, flower of the dead), candles, memorabilia, incense, chocolate and drinks. Families gather together, make feasts, eat, dance, drink and tell fond stories about the people they’re celebrating. Miniature skeletons and little sugar or chocolate skulls, calaveras, are passed around and placed on the ofrendas. Parades are held where people paint their faces with “death masks”, wear traditional, brightly colorful clothing, and perform lively dances.

Graves on  Dia de los Muertos

Many families then spend the afternoon or evening hours in the cemetery at their loved one’s gravesite. Instead of it being a scary or macabre observance, it is yet another chance to pray and show respect for the dead. Family members will clean the tombstone and grave, lay marigolds and decorations and more food on it. They bring along a picnic, and sometimes, mariachi bands or local musicians will play in keeping with an atmosphere that is light and festive.

There is no real American equivalent to El Dia de los Muertos. Here, death is almost always thought of as sad; a reason for grieving. Mexican people feel the same sadness regarding the death of a loved one, but they set aside a few days a year to gather as a family and joyfully celebrate that person’s life. What a lovely and comforting ritual.

Guest blogger, Jacqui Keady, is a freelance writer and lifelong, avid reader of mystery and romance novels. She lives in Folsom, California with her husband and two dogs.