Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of the most important dates of the year in Mexico and, although it is an ancient and very popular tradition, the fact that it is so rich make for very noteworthy facts that surround this rich celebration.
Día de muertos is one of the oldest traditions in the country. It began to be celebrated in pre-Hispanic times and is one of the hallmarks of Mexican culture. It is a moment in which the conception of life and death of that rich culture is strongly expressed, as well as all the traditions and beliefs that revolve around the subject.
In this note we put together a list of very interesting, fun, and curious facts about Día de Muertos starting with what the Day of the Dead is; why it is celebrated; where does the tradition come from; what does the celebration consist of; and jumping into other fascinating cultural facts of this dear-to-our-heart holiday.
- Día de Muertos is a Mexican festivity in which people honor their deceased by visiting the cemetery or setting altars (a.k.a. ofrendas)
- The altars or offerings are created in honor of the dead of the family. It is a way to honor, receive, and remember loved ones who are no longer with us
- This celebration begins during the night of October 31st (sometimes before) and continues November 1st, Día de Todos los Santos (All Saints' Day), and November 2nd.
- Precisely the dawn that passes between the first two days of November is the most spectacular, with the impressive displays of the festivity filled with food and drinks, in houses and cemeteries.
- Although the dates overlap, Día de Muertos is not a Mexican version of Halloween, though the two share some traditions.
- The origin of Día de Muertos comes from the Aztec belief that, once a year, the souls of our the deceased would visit the world of the living for one night, traveling all the way from Mictlán, the underworld.
- On Día de Muertos it is believed that the border between the spirit and the living world dissolve, allowing the dead to visit their loved ones for one night
- Unlike Catholicism, for the Aztecs the place where the dead went did not depend on how they behaved in life but on the way in which they died and there were several underworlds for each, such as Tlalocan (paradise of the Rain God) for the drowned, Omeyacan (paradise of the sun) for those who died in combat or women in childbirth, Chichihuacuauhco for children, and Mictlán for those who died naturally.
- Mesoamerican cultures celebrated the Day of the Dead long before the Spanish arrived on the continent. The celebration of the dead changed with the Spanish conquest and began to be celebrated on November 1 and 2 to coincide with Catholic observances.
- The festivity that became the Day of the Dead commemorates the ninth month of the Mexica solar calendar that was celebrated throughout the month. The ninth month, called Tlaxochimaco (birth of flowers), was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. The families held a solemn vigil, cooked in memory of the dead, and the next day they placed the food at their graves.
- With the altar of the dead that is set up these days, the deceased are honored. To prepare it, it is necessary to place images and photographs of the deceased that is/are being honored, as well as personal objects, papel picado, food, pleasures, and any other object of importance for them.
- There is not a set or fixed norm to set up an altar, but there is symbolism in the way some are set up and the elements found in them.
- The altar can be located at ground level, known as a cemetery altar, or with two levels that represent heaven and earth. More elaborate is the three-tiered altar, which represents heaven, earth, and hell. The most impressive ones that requires further elaboration are altar of seven stories, each of which represents one of the seven deadly sins.
- Among the offerings that are distributed on the altar, the banquet has special importance, that is, the drinks and food with which the visit of the deceased is celebrated. This is how the favorite drink of the deceased is placed around the altar.
- In addition, a plate with salt is also placed so that souls are not corrupted, incense to scare away evil spirits, sugar skulls, flowers, a cross, and candles, all with different symbolism and purpose (read more here).
- The most typical flowers to place at the ofrenda are cempasúchil, a plant endemic to Mexico that blooms on these dates
- The word cempasúchil comes from the Nahuatl “cempoal”, twenty, and “xóchitl”, flower, translating as “flower of twenty petals”. This flower is also known as flower of the dead.
- It is said that these flowers represent the sun’s light, which, together with their smell guide the path that the deceased must follow in their journey. For this reason, they are placed along the paths to the altar so that they can find it without any problem.
- Calaveras (sugar skulls) represent the cycle of life and death as well as the festive character of this tradition
- There is no exact day to set up the altar, although some say that the dead arrive daily every 12 hours between October 28th and November 2nd, so it might be a good idea to start setting it up during those days.
- Pan de Muerto, which translates to Day of the Dead bread, is another iconic element seen at Día de Muertos and placed at ofrendas. This bread symbolizes the cycle of life and death and placing it at the ofrenda is a way to spoil our loved ones and offer bread in case they are hungry.
- During the months of October and the beginning of November, supermarkets and bakeries offer this peculiar, sweet bread, perfect for a dinner with hot chocolate or pot coffee.
- Although Pan de Muerto has over 100 regional varieties of how it is made, it is commonly made with anise, orange, and a coat of sugar on top.
- Pan de Muerto is made specially for this holiday, you cannot find it any other time of the year.
- Monarch butterflies, or Quetzalpapálotl as the Aztecs called them, are closely tied to this festivity, these butterflies were believed to guard the soul of the dead.
- The arrival of the monarch butterflies to Mexico in November coincides with the Day of the Dead.
- For those who do not want to wait for their deceased at home, the party is also held in the cemetery! Many people in Mexico decorate the graves of their relatives with cempasúchil flowers and candles, bring food, play live music, and spend the night with their loved ones.
- The Day of the Dead is not celebrated in the same way throughout Mexico. This syncretic celebration has elements of the original cultures of America and in each region of Mexico shows different characteristics unique to their culture. In the same way, not all have the same beliefs so symbolism between each element may vary significantly among different towns or even communities.
- La Catrina is a satirical representation of upper-class Mexicans under Porfirio Diaz’s government created by the Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada.
- Due to the cultural richness of this celebration, in 2008 UNESCO listed Día de Muertos as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- For the little ones, going out to ask for calaveritas is one of the most exciting customs of this date. On November 1st and 2nd, it is common to find groups of children in the streets asking for their calaverita, saying “Me da mi calaverita?/ May I have my little skull?” Similar to trick-or-treating, it is customary for children to go out to visit house by house with a skull in their hand asking for sweets, pan de muerto, or fruit to feed it. Some dress up in costumes, but not the majority.
- Laughing at death is part of the Mexican tradition and an example of this are calaveras literarias, literary skulls, that are typical of the Day of the Dead. Literary skulls are satirical verses and rhymes written as epitaphs, written usually to make fun of people and death, highlighting something about their personality or life in a humorous poem.
- Day of the Dead is a tradition that has been present in the cinema since long before the Disney movie, Coco. Among these are two films from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema: Janitzio (1935) and Maclovia (1948).
What other interesting facts do you know about Día de Muertos? Is there something here you would like for us to develop further? We would love to hear from you!
If you liked this piece, be sure to check out all other articles written about Día de Muertos in our Zócalo blog here, where you can read all about the elements for an ofrenda, an in-depth explanation about Día de Muertos, and many more!
Lastly, while you’re at it don’t forget to check out our Día de Muertos collection where you can find all essentials for your ofrenda and home decorations!
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