What is día de los muertos or day of the dead? What does it celebrate? Is it a scary occasion?
Día de los muertos is a day to honor the dead and even more simply, a celebration of the cycle of life.
Before the Spanish conquistadores arrived on Mexican soil in 1519, indigenous people were already celebrating the dead. The Aztecs had a month long celebration which, in the Gregorian calendar, occurred mid August to mid October. During this celebration, the goddess Mictecacihuatl presided over the festivities to honor the dead in the land called Mictlan (the underworld where the dead were believed to rest on their journey to the lowest level of the underworld). To honor the dead, the Aztecs would offer gifts of food and drink and place personal possessions of the dead, along with candles and fragrant yellow/gold flowers (called cempoaxochitl which is the marigold; today, in Mexico, it is also called flor de muerto or flower of the dead) and clay figures of skeletons and skulls. It was thought that during this celebration, the barrier between the dead and the living was much easier for the dead to cross back to visit their living loved ones. The food and drink were left to provide nourishment to the dead after their long journey from Mictlan to the land of the living; the strong scent of the flowers, along with the light from the candles, would help guide the dead back to their loved ones. It was a celebration of the cycle of life and death; both parts of human existence.
When the Spanish arrived, so did Christianity. Seeing the rituals of the Aztecs as pagan, the Catholic priests tried to abolish this celebration. They forbade the practice but it was such a vital part of Aztec beliefs that it would not go away. Soon, the priests decided that instead of abolishing it, they would move the celebration to October 31 through November 2 to coincide with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. The first two days of the Catholic holy days were to celebrate saints and the third was to celebrate all dead that had been baptized prior to dying. However, the indigenous celebrations honored dead infants and children on November 1 (día de los inocentes or día de los niños) and all other dead on November 2 (día de los difuntos or día de los muertos).
In modern times, families visit the cemetery on October 31. They clean the tombstone and tend the grave, light candles, place food and drink on the graves, and spend the night waiting for their loved ones to return. During this time, they tell stories that involve their dead family members. At home, there are altars made for the departed family members. The altars include the favorite food and drink of the honorees along with some of their personal possessions, photos, candles, holy pictures and sometimes letters written to the dead.
It’s not a sad time. While it is a solemn time during which people come to terms with the death of their loved ones, especially those that have died in the previous year, it is also a happy time that recognizes death as part of life. It reminds us that just as we have all been born and are living our lives, we all will die. As such, it helps to come to terms with the reality of our own mortality.
Who will YOU celebrate and honor during los dias de los muertos this year?