History of the Day of the Dead

A Look at the History of the Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead, referred to as DAa de los Muertos in Spanish-speaking countries, is a Mexican holiday observed most prominently in Mexico, but also in many other places all around the world. A national holiday in Mexico, the Day of the Dead is celebrated from October 31 to November 2 and is a very special holiday involving gatherings of family and friends in remembrance of loved ones who have died. The Day of the Dead has a rich history, many vibrant traditions, and interesting spiritual connotations. Being that it's listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the following is a brief discussion of the history and origins of DAa de los Muertos, common practices associated with its celebration, places where it's important, and what the Day of the Dead really means.

Day of the Dead: Origin and History

The Day of the Dead has origins in ancient pre-Columbian Mexico and many other Latin countries. Celebrations involving rituals in honor of dead ancestors and loved ones date back as far as 3,000 years ago. The first celebrations took place at the beginning of the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, which is equivalent to the beginning of our August. During the celebrations, the Aztecs would give offerings to the dead in front of their homemade altars they made specifically for this occasion. Their offerings were of rare foods, engravings, art, candles, and other such things presented as gifts to the spirits of their visiting ancestors. When their loved ones would die, the Aztecs would keep the skulls and decorate them. This is why the skull, particularly the sugar skull, has become such a prominent symbol and decoration for the Day of the Dead.

Upon first observing the Aztecs partaking in these festivals, the first Spanish explorers thought the Aztecs were mocking death and making light of the loss of their loved ones due to the ornate and celebratory nature of the occasion. Over the course of centuries and post-Columbian influence, the holiday evolved and became a blending of primitive rituals with later European components. Today's Day of the Dead is a predominately Mexican celebration that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism that was brought to the region by the Spanish conquistadores. By the twentieth century, it became customary to have celebrations in remembrance of children and infants who had died on November 1, while November 2 was to honor adults who had passed. Each day has separate names: November 1 is called DAa de los Inocentes, which translates to "Day of the Innocents." November 2 is referred to as DAa de los Muertos or DAa de los Difuntos?, both of which mean "Day of the Dead."

Beliefs and Celebration

Marking the end of the year's maize harvest, festivities begin on October 31, which is when they believe the gates of heaven open to the mortal world, and is when children make little altars to invite angelitos?, or spirits of dead children, to return for a visit. On November 1, which is All Saints' Day, they believe the spirits of ancestors return to visit them. All Souls' Day, which is November 2, involves families going to the cemeteries where they can visit and decorate the graves of their loved ones. Though most towns and their residents will celebrate the holiday, celebrations of Day of the Dead are not universal, so tradition and elements of the celebrations will vary from one town to another. However, there are certain components of Day of the Dead that you would see throughout most of Latin America.

Over the course of the festival, the essential Day of the Dead treat is called pan de muertos, or "bread of the dead." The pan de muertos is a popular and delicious decorated bread that is commonly eaten and even offered to the dead during the celebrations. It's common to see this bread decorated with human bones made of dough and crisscrossed over the top of the loaf, which has a prominent orange flavor and a hint of licorice from the anise seed. Of the popular Day of the Dead decorations, you will usually see marigold flowers, traditional sugar skulls, skeletons, decorations made of tissue paper, and incense, among others.

The Day of the Dead celebrations are a very social affair, involving the whole family and many friends. It's tradition for very large groups to get together to tend to their loved ones' graves, build altars (known as ofrendas) together, and celebrate. While decorating and assembling altars either at home or in the cemetery, it's customary for them to sing songs, tell stories of their loved ones and recall fond memories, eat their favorite foods or traditional Day of the Dead treats, and even dance. The Day of the Dead is not seen as an occasion to grieve; rather, it's a celebration of the life and a time to honor those that have passed.

Graves, Gifts and Ofrendas

During this celebration, visiting loved ones' graves is seen as a way to be closer to their loved ones' spirits. They believe their loved ones' spirits return to them on All Souls' Day, so they elaborately decorate graves and bring offerings of gifts. Great care is taken with these rituals; they believe the success of the rituals and the quality of their offerings will mean greater success, prosperity, and a larger harvest in the next year. Even gifts of food are put on graves and altars because they believe the spirits can absorb the nutrients from the food; therefore, the living shouldn't eat food left on a grave or altar.

Another important part of Day of the Dead celebrations is the ofrenda. Though the word translates as "offering," it's actually an elaborate altar, though it's not only for praying for the loved ones they've lost. This is a very important part of the celebration and they tend to be very particular about how to build an ofrenda?

First, they clean their home and choose a table or some other focal surface onto which they will lay out a tablecloth, usually white. They decorate the table with some of their deceased loved ones' favorite things, personal belongings, candles, decorations made of tissue paper, fruit, and other offerings. The focal point of the ofrenda is usually a framed picture or pictures of their relatives or ancestors, who they believe will visit them as a result of the ofrenda. It is a point of pride to have a beautiful, intricate ofrenda?, which they believe will be pleasing to the spirits of their ancestors.

When and Where is the Day of the Dead Celebrated?

Though the Day of the Dead is seen as being a Mexican holiday, it's actually celebrated and observed all around the world. All of these festivals of the dead, celebrated by many cultures throughout the world, have historically commemorated the end of the harvest season, celebrated the beginning of autumn, and many involve a spiritual or supernatural component. Similar to the Day of the Dead, some of these cultures have believed that the now barren and infertile grounds allow for easier passage for the souls laid to rest beneath them. This is why holidays like Celtic Samhain, Day of the Dead, and Halloween, among many others, occur at or around the same time of year.

Though many cultures have their own festivals that are similar, the Day of the Dead still sees observance by many people and countries around the world. Today, you can see the influence of the Day of the Dead in many countries with a Roman Catholic heritage, such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, and involve similar ofrendas where people will leave work to go visit the graves of their loved ones and decorate them with flowers and candles. In the Czech Republic, locals and members of the Mexican embassy are bringing the Day of the Dead to Prague by celebrating the occasion with many of the traditional Latin-style decorations and customs. Brazilians have a holiday called Dia de Finados, which means "Day of the Dead," and takes place on November 2, and is a similar celebrating of life that involves going to churches and grave sites offering prayers with candles and flowers. In Guatemala, the Day of the Dead is highlighted by the construction and flying of kites. In the Philippines, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day are combined into a single holiday called Allhallowtide. With the strong Mexican presence in the United States, elaborate Day of the Dead celebrations can be observed in places like Texas, Arizona, California, and even Montana among many other places.