When I told a Mexican friend that I was writing an article on Dia de los Muertos, the national “Day of the Dead” holiday, her face lit up and she became animated. “This is really the most important holiday in Mexico,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what your religious or political viewpoints are; everyone wants to honor their loved ones who have passed. It’s good to help people in the States understand what the celebration actually means.”
Dia de los Muertos: the Basics
While Americans and many others are busy at the end of October preparing for Halloween, the people of Mexico are getting ready for another holiday: Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. During this holiday, Mexicans remember their family members who have died, and many believe the spirits of the deceased leave heaven to visit earth for a short time, when they are reunited with their loved ones.
Dia de los Muertos culminates each year on November 2nd, but the holiday spans three days. October 31st, the same time as American Halloween, is the night when children who have passed descend to visit their families. On November 1st and 2nd, adults are honored, ending with a trip to the cemetery.
How Mexicans Celebrate Dia de los Muertos
During the last weeks of October, many towns and cities in Mexico are a flurry of activity, as citizens begin their Dia de los Muertos preparations. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead), also sometimes called pan dulce (sweet bread), appears at all the bakeries and grocery stores. This brioche-like loaf is covered with sugar and often bone-shaped decorations. It is eaten at the cemetery during the Dia de los Muertos holiday, as well as during the weeks leading up to it.
Trucks full of burnt orange marigolds, the flower of Dia de los Muertos, can be seen rumbling through the streets, delivering blooms for graveside decorations as well as ofrendas (offerings), the elaborate home shrines that people build in remembrance of their deceased family members. Some of these altars are permanent fixtures in the home, while others are temporary during only the fall months.
Ofrendas are bedecked with treats for the dead to eat when they return to earth, as well as other indulgences and memorabilia. Common altar elements include:
- sweets, like pan de muerto, sugar skulls, chocolate, and tiny edible confectionary coffins
- beverages, such as water, tea, and coffee
- gourds and autumn vegetables
- favorite meals of the deceased
- photographs and mementos from times past
- favorite clothing of the deceased
- shots of liquor
Mexicans who celebrate Dia de los Muertos believe that death is merely a continuation of earth life in heaven, so when their loved ones visit earth, they need fortification and fun. These holiday treats are taken to the cemetery, first on October 31st, when a vigil is held for children (angelitos, or angels) returning to earth, and then again on November 2nd, when the gates of heaven reopen to allow adults to go home for a day.
During the Dia de los Muertos holiday, grave sites are cleaned and decorated, picnics are held at burial grounds, and live music is played in celebration of the deceased. Traditions vary by region, with some villages hosting parades and festivals.
Origins of Dia de los Muertos
The Mexicans’ belief about the afterlife is common to many ancient cultures, and the roots of Dia de los Muertos lie thousands of years before the European conquest of the Americas in 1519. Originally, people indigenous to Mexico celebrated a month-long festival honoring Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld. Catholic Spaniards who invaded Mexico saw this holiday, and many other native rituals, as pagan, and fought to suppress it.
The result, after hundreds of years, is the holiday, Dia de los Muertos, that is now only several days long and occurs at the same time as Catholic All Souls’ and All Saints’ days, which are the origins of the present day American Halloween celebration. Mictecacihuatl has been transformed into Catrina, Lady of the Dead, the now familiar skeleton in a long gown and enormous hat, who serves as a momento mori to the living, reminding them that life and all its tangible enjoyments are fleeting. And many people in Mexico now go to Catholic mass during Dia de los Muertos, as the lines between the indigenous holiday and Spanish Catholicism have become blurred.
Dia de los Muertos Outside Latin Countries: Sharing Tradition or Cultural Appropriation?
Mexico is not the only country that celebrates Dia de los Muertos; variations on the holiday are found in many countries, including the nations of South America, Spain, Italy, and parts of the Philippines, as well as areas of the United States with significant Latin American populations. But lately elements of the Day of the Dead have been incorporated into everything from manicure stencils to tattoos, and there was even a scene in the last James Bond film, “Spectre,” depicting the holiday, albeit with a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day-type parade that doesn’t actually exist in Mexico City (but which Mexican officials are now said to be considering).
Recipes for sugar skull Halloween cupcakes abound online, and most recently a controversy broke out this month in the UK over a British grocery store chain’s decision to sell Dia de los Muertos costumes and masks for Halloween (probably spurred in part by the popularity of “Spectre”). Critics of the store balked at the confusion of the Day of the Dead with Halloween, and via social media labeled the costumes “disrespectful” and “inappropriate.” Blogs have even sprung up, calling out non-Latin people for cultural appropriation of what is, to many, a sacrosanct holiday.
Cultural appropriation can be a slippery slope. Is it cultural appropriation if you are non-Mexican celebrating Dia de los Muertos, not confusing it with Halloween, and if your intentions are to learn about the traditions behind the holiday? Or is wearing a sugar skull one step further down the road to blackface? Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery or the worst type of insult? If you take on a culture’s aesthetics, are you also obligated to know about their issues too?
Perhaps what is important to remember is what we might have in common: the desire to honor the deceased in our families, and remember that when all is said and done, you can’t take it with you.