The Meaning Behind the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos)

October 11, 2017

Meaning of Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos (Spanish), is a Mexican holiday that is also celebrated by people of Mexican ancestry living in other places, including the United States.

Initially, the Day of the Dead celebration took place at the beginning of summer. Gradually, Day of the Dead was associated with October 31, November 1 and November 2 to coincide with the Western Christian triduum of Allhollowtide – All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

A key principle behind the Day of the Dead celebration is the thought that the dead would be insulted if living family members mourned the deceased. As such, Day of the Dead celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Those that celebrate Day of the Dead believe that the deceased return to earth for one day of the year. 

Participants in Day of the Dead celebrations recognize death as a natural part of the human experience, along with birth, childhood and adulthood. On Day of the Dead the departed are recognized and invited to return to again become part of the family and the community.

The Aztec Roots of Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico developed from ancient traditions among its pre-Columbian cultures. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors had been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2,500 – 3,000 years.

When Spaniards arrived in Mexico during the 16th century they observed the native Aztec practice of honoring the dead. The celebration occurred in the summer during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month! The festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead,” corresponding to the modern La Calavera Catrina.

Day of the Dead - La Calavera Catrina

While the Christian Spaniards thought the Day of the Dead practice was sacrilegious they could not stop the natives from honoring their predecessors. The bond was too strong between the living and the dead. Not only did the Day of the Dead celebration survive the Spanish opposition, it thrived.

Initially celebrated in southern Mexico, over time the practice moved northward. As the practice grew in popularity, it began to meld with elements of Christianity and eventually moved from the summer time to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated on November 1 and 2, respectively.

By the late 20th century in most regions of Mexico, Day of the Dead practices had developed to honor dead children and infants on November 1, and to honor deceased adults on November 2. November 1 is generally referred to as Día de los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) or Día de los Angelitos (“Day of the Little Angels”). November 2 is referred to as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (“Day of the Dead”).

Those that celebrate Day of the Dead believe that the children’s spirits visit from midnight on October 31st through midnight on November 1st, at which time the children’s spirits leave and the adult spirits arrive.

Party with the Dead

Day of the Dead focuses on bringing together family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died – and to help support their spiritual journey. Many that celebrate Day of the Dead look to the spirits for guidance and council.

During the multi-day Day of the Dead holiday, families visit the cemeteries where their relatives are buried. They pay their respects by cleaning and maintaining the tombs, pulling weeds surrounding the tomb, decorating the tombs and generally providing upkeep.

Day of the Dead - Tomb Decoration

Family members bring food, play music, sing, drink tequila and mezcal and tell stories about the deceased. Imagine a tailgate party held at a cemetery!

While some may view the Day of the Dead celebration as sacrilege, participants believe quite the opposite. To participants it is right to visit the departed, spend time with them and let them know that they are not forgotten.

Day of the Dead is a celebration of life – the departed’s life. In Mexico, entire communities can be found at the cemetery taking part in the Day of the Dead festivities. To the uninitiated this practice may seem odd, even creepy. But to participants it is a deeply spiritual and happy experience.

While many cultures think of cemeteries as dark, evil and haunted, Day of the Dead participants think of death and cemeteries as nothing to be scared of but instead something to celebrate. Cemeteries are a place to visit ancestors and provide support while getting spiritual support. It’s not scary like a Friday the 13th movie. It’s uplifting.

Creating an Ofrenda

Leading up to the Day of the Dead celebration, family members create altars dedicated to the deceased family member. The altar, or “ofrenda,” is usually set up in the home of the family member honoring the deceased. If local, the family member takes the ofrenda to the grave site on Day of the Dead and uses it to decorate the tomb.

Day of the Dead altars are commonly decorated with flowers, candles, ceramic skulls and photos of loved ones. The food placed on the altar consists of the loved one’s favorite dishes and treats and many times includes Day of the Dead breads called pan de muerto.

Day of the Dead - Ofrenda

Drinks are placed in the altar to quench the thirst of the dead after their long journey back home. It it common to include tequila and mezcal among the drinks included in the ofrenda.

Other items included in the ofrenda include marigolds as well as burning copal. The yellow marigold petals guide spirits of loved ones to the celebration. The scent of the copal is thought to be enjoyed by the spirits of the dead. Together the marigolds and copal act as a beacons to the deceased’s spirit.  

Face Painting

Apart from creating ofrendas in tribute to the dead and bringing belongings to the grave site, there is the highly visible practice of face painting.

It is common practice for those celebrating the Day of the Dead to paint their faces to look like skulls. The face painting is done to either represent a deceased loved one or as an expression of themselves.

Day of the Dead - Face Painting

While the use of black paint is common in face painting, the use of vibrant colors is equally common. And each color has a meaning. 

Yellow – Represents the sun and unity. Under the sun, we’re all the same.

White – Represents spirit, hope and purity.

Red – Represents blood and life.

Purple – Represents mourning, grief and suffering.

Pink – Represents happiness.

Making of Calaveras

Another common Day of the Dead practice includes the making of calaveras, or sugar skulls, to resemble the deceased. The term “sugar skull” refers to the decorated skulls made from sugar that were used hundreds of years ago. The technique of making ornaments from sugar was introduced to Mexico by the Catholic Spanish friars.

Day of the Dead - Sugar Skulls

While some sugar skulls continue to be made from sugar as part of the Day of the Dead celebration, the practice has evolved and been simplified to include decorated skulls made from moldable material such as clay, wood, etc. Although not made literally from sugar, these decorated replacement skulls continue to be referred to as sugar skulls.

It is common to write the name of the deceased on the forehead of the skull and place it on the home ofrenda or gravestone to honor the return of a particular spirit.

Worldwide Adoption

Today the holiday has spread throughout the world, being absorbed within other deep traditions for honoring the dead. So if you were wondering what it was all about, now you know!

Day of the Dead Sugar Skull Backpack

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Reprinted from here