11 November 2020
DIA DE MUERTOS
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TRADITION IN MEXICO
Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, is not a Mexican version of Halloween. The rituals are rife with symbolic meaning. While the holiday originated in Mexico, it is celebrated all over Latin America with colorful Calaveras (skulls) and Calacas (skeletons). Day of the Dead, typically begins on All Saints Day, the first day of November. While most festivities combine indigenous and Catholic traditions, the Mexican holiday predates Catholic influence, originating from ancient Aztec festivals that venerated gods like Mictēcacihuātl, the powerful lady of the dead.
In 1947, artist Diego Rivera featured Posada’s stylized skeleton in his masterpiece mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Posada’s skeletal bust was dressed in a large feminine hat and Rivera made his female and named her Catrina. Today, the calavera Catrina, or elegant skull, is the Day of the Dead’s most ubiquitous symbol.
Literary Calaveras. - Also, Calavera means “skull.” But during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, calavera was used to describe short, humorous poems, which were often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs published in newspapers that poked fun at the living. These literary calaveras eventually became a popular part of Día de los Muertos celebrations. Today the practice is alive and well. You’ll find these clever, biting poems in print, read aloud, and broadcast on television and radio programs. Calaveras are satirical little verses that joke to remind us that everyone, rich or poor, famous or unknown, is headed to the same fate—back to the soil, to bone, to ash.
Food of the dead. – “You work up a mighty hunger and thirst traveling from the spirit world back to the realm of the living”. At least that’s the traditional belief in Mexico. Some families place their dead loved one’s favorite meal on the altar. Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolize sorrow.
Costumes. - Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls, and, mimicking the Calavera Catrina, they don suits and fancy dresses. Many revelers wear shells or other noisemakers to amp up the excitement—and also possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun. If there is one festival motif it would be “Calacas and Calaveras”, skeletons and skulls. Children in skeleton face-paint chew sugary skull candy. Bone-shaped bread and skull maracas balance on tables between stacks of tiny ceramic skulls. Skull-shaped balloons are paraded through town behind costumed skeletons who dance their skeleton marionettes.
Papel picado. - You’ve probably seen this beautiful Mexican paper craft plenty of times in Mexican restaurants. The literal translation, pierced paper, perfectly describes how it’s made. Artisans stack colored tissue paper in dozens of layers, then perforate the layers with hammer and chisel points. Papel picado isn’t used exclusively during Day of the Dead, but it plays an important role in the holiday. Draped around altars and in the streets, the art represents the wind and the fragility of life.
The centerpiece of the celebration is an Altar, or Ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries.
These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar.
Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the altar. Scattered from altar to gravesite, marigold petals guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar. This is a time for sharing funny stories about those who have passed, for eating your great-great-grandma’s favorite soup, for cleaning the graves, for dancing in the streets. Markets across Mexico spill over with sugary candy, copal incense, pricked paper banners, and mountains of bread. Everywhere, everything is flooded with marigolds.
Thanks to recognition by UNESCO and the global sharing of information, Día de los Muertos is more popular than ever—in Mexico and, increasingly, abroad.