Dia de los Muertos Traditions
- By Jenna Maxwell
Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican celebration between October 31st and November 2nd where people remember the lives of family members and friends who have passed on. It is believed that the souls of the departed are able to visit Earth in this window of time. During these celebrations, people prepare special foods in honor of those who have departed and visit cemeteries to decorate gravesites with flowers and sugar skulls. Different types of souls are celebrated on different days. Angelitos, also known as little angels or the souls of dead children, are remembered on November 1st, which is All Saints' Day. Deceased adults are remembered and honored the following day on All Souls' Day.
The Origins of the Holiday
The holiday is a result of melding pre-existing beliefs of indigenous people with religious beliefs of the people who came to the country later. In this case, it was the beliefs the indigenous Mexican people held about death that led to this celebration. Before the Spanish came, the indigenous people believed that the deceased needed the same things as the living. Like many other native people, they believed that their bodies should be buried with the possessions that they had while living.
When the Spanish arrived, they originally thought that the idea was barbaric because they viewed death as the end of life while the native people viewed it as a continuation of life. Unlike the Spaniards, the indigenous people embraced life and, despite changing times in their country, they refused to let the tradition die. Over time, the celebration was gradually blended into the Catholic Church after the celebration was moved to coincide with All Souls' Day, which was already on the Catholic Church's calendar.
The traditional altars for Dia de Los Muertos are usually set up in households as an offertory for the departed souls. This offertory is called an ofrenda and usually features candles, copal, fruits, wild marigolds, cockscomb, photographs, plates of foods, and saint's images.
The items displayed on the altar are traditionally new, meaning all flowers, candles, and food is bought or created new for the celebration each year. They are meant to be impermanent and anything other than something new dishonors the dead. Of course, not everything has to be new. Favorite things of the deceased, toys or books for example make good altar decorations because they draw the spirits to the altar.
Everything that is set up on the altar usually has a special meaning to the family and departed. The food that is on the altar is usually among the departed's favorites, sometimes alcoholic drinks are also on the altar so that loved ones can toast the arrival of their ancestors. Originally, the beverage commonly on the altar was called pulque, a drink made from the sap of agave plant and was reserved specifically for spiritual ceremonies. Today, any beverage favored by the dead can be used.
On the Day of the Dead, families visit graveyards to clean the headstones of their deceased loved ones. It is a time where the gravesites are polished, weeds are pulled, and graves are decorated with marigolds that are arranged in huge arches. The grave sites are also adorned with photos, gifts, and the deceased's favorite food and drinks. Like the altar, these gravesites are offerings that are meant to attract the dead. The burning candles and incense help guide and lead the souls of their loved ones back to Earth.
The tradition of cleaning the graves during the Dia de Los Muertos celebration is a grand festivity. Picnics in the graveyard are commonplace as people interact with the deceased as if their loved one were still alive. These visits turn into all-night vigils with ceremonies lit by candlelight and the deceased's favorite music is played, often by a hired band.
While altars and gravesites are important components of the celebration, nothing honors the dead more than telling stories about them. Funny memories and calaveras (poems that poke fun at their quirks) are especially good because they believe that the dead do not want to be remembered in a somber way, but rather they want to be celebrated. In Mexican culture, telling these stories keep the family's oral tradition alive. As these tales are passed from generation to generation, the family history is kept alive.
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