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Day of the Dead: Not as Scary as It Sounds

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Heading to Mexico in the fall is a chance to participate in el Dia de los Muertos (Day of The Dead), festivities that take place all over Mexico on November 2. Though on the surface the celebrations may appear to be similar in both rural and urban parts of Mexico, the motivations for celebrating can be very different. Despite its affinity for the dead, the Day of the Dead is anything but a morbid holiday. It is a day of celebration and recognizing that death is a part of life.


The origins of the Day of the Dead are in the Mesoamerican native traditions found in the calendar of the ancient Aztecs. In the month of Miccailhuitontli, the ritual festivities of that month were presided over by the “Lady of the Dead” and those same festivities were dedicated to both children and the dead. These festivities took place near the end of July and the beginning of August, but the Spanish Conquistador’s priests moved the festivals to the beginning of November to coincide with the Christian All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day. This practice of moving what were viewed as pagan holidays to coincide with Christian holidays has a long tradition in the Catholic Church as an effort to gain converts. So today, Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead during the first two days of November. The modern festivity is a blending of the ancient native traditions with Christian characteristics as are many holidays in Mexico.

Families welcome the dead back into their homes by building large altars covered with images of the deceased, decorated with marigolds or chrysanthemums, religious amulets, and with ofrenda, or offerings, of the deceased’s favorite foods or beverages and cigarettes. The elements of the earth, air, fire, and water are represented on the altar as well. The altars are the living’s way of welcoming the dead back into the home.


It is believed that the souls of the dead return to visit the living on this night. In the evening, families head out to the graveyard to spend the night at the graves of family members. The graves are cleaned, decorated with flowers, food is brought for a picnic, and there is much socializing with family and the community. To remember the dead, stories are told about their lives. Special foods are prepared with spicy sauces, Mexican hot chocolate, sugary confections, and cookies in a variety of animal and skull shapes and special egg-batter bread, pan de muerto. The gathering is a festive social occasion recognizing the part that death plays in human experience, despite the gruesome setting.


The calavera, or skeleton, is an important symbol during Dia de los Muertos. The skeleton is a mocking representation of Death, not a fatalistic one. Calaveras decorate the inside of shops and shop windows dressed as judges, soldiers, housewives, soccer players, doctors, etc. The calavera appears in many different handmade folk art forms including wood, papier-mâché, and of course, the famous sugar candy skulls.


Day of the Dead celebrations are found in Mexico and other Central and South American countries and in areas of the United States with communities of Latinos.

By Sara Sturtevant

Photo source: Scott Clark at flicker (cc)

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