Corina on Dia de los Muertos

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Corina, who stopped by to tell us a bit about Day of the Dead. You can find out more about her on the contributors page or at her blog.

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.

calaca_poster.jpgBefore 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 muertosTrinketBox.jpgcelebration. 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?




Leave a Comment

  1. Interesting and informative post, Corina. In Poland, All Saints’ Day is celebrated Nov. 1 and many people go visit the graves of loved ones and leave flowers and candles. They usually clean them earlier in the week as preparation. Cemeteries always look beautiful around this holiday – particularly at night – due to all the lit candles. Ancient Slavs believed that during this time period the boundary between the other world and this one was thinner and so they believed the spirits of the deceased roamed the Earth. They lit fires at crossroads to provide warmth for these spirits. When Christianity was introduced (in Poland), the celebration changed to take place at cemeteries and candles were lit and some small food items used to be left (but not any more). This seems very similar to dia de los muertos. I love the sugar skulls and Mexican art related with this holiday.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think that just about every culture celebrates the dead, save the American culture. And it really is about celebrating the circle of life in other cultures as well as in Mexico.

      I was reading about Celtic culture where they believed that spirits roamed the earth during this time of year as well. To get home without being assaulted by a spirit, they carried hollowed out squash with scary faces and candles to scare the spirits. That’s where we get the jack-o-lantern part of it. The candy comes from the same Celtic culture who believed that the dead would come to the door and knock asking for food to nourish them while they were on earth. Interesting how ancient customs and beliefs transform over the years to give us what we have today.

      Liked by 1 person

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