Origins

DayoftheDaygroupThe 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.[9] The festival that developed into the modern Day of the Dead fell in 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[10] known as the “Lady of the Dead”, corresponding to the modern La Calavera Catrina.

By the late 20th century in most regions of Mexico, the 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”) but also as 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”). [11]

Beliefs

Frances Ann Day summarizes the three-day celebration, the Day of the Dead:

On October 31, All Hallows Eve, the children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit. November 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits will come to visit. November 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The three-day fiesta filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations.
— Frances Ann Day, Latina and Latino Voices in Literature[12]

People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.[11]

Mexican cempasúchitl(marigold) is the traditional flower used to honor the dead
Flowers, including Mexican marigolds, used in the celebration of the Day of the Dead

Plans for the day are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods to be offered to the dead. During the three-day period families usually clean and decorate graves;[10] most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas (altars), which often include orange Mexican marigolds (Tagetes erecta) called cempasúchil (originally named cempoaxochitl, Nāhuatl for “twenty flowers”). In modern Mexico the marigold is sometimes called Flor de Muerto (Flower of Dead). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings.

Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or “the little angels”), and bottles of tequila, mezcal or pulque or jars of atole for adults. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (“bread of dead”), and sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. The ofrendas are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased.[10] Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the “spiritual essence” of the ofrendas food, so though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In many places people have picnics at the grave site, as well.

Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes;[10] these sometimes feature a Christian cross, statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other persons, scores of candles, and an ofrenda. Traditionally, families spend some time around the altar, praying and telling anecdotes about the deceased. In some locations celebrants wear shells on their clothing, so when they dance, the noise will wake up the dead; some will also dress up as the deceased.

Public schools at all levels build altars with ofrendas, usually omitting the religious symbols. Government offices usually have at least a small altar, as this holiday is seen as important to the Mexican heritage.

Those with a distinctive talent for writing sometimes create short poems, called calaveras (skulls), mocking epitaphs of friends, describing interesting habits and attitudes or funny anecdotes. This custom originated in the 18th or 19th century, after a newspaper published a poem narrating a dream of a cemetery in the future, “and all of us were dead”, proceeding to read the tombstones. Newspapers dedicate calaveras to public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of the famous calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator. Theatrical presentations of Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla (1817–1893) are also traditional on this day.

José Guadalupe Posada created a famous print of a figure he called La Calavera Catrina (“The Elegant Skull”) as a parody of a Mexican upper-class female. Posada’s striking image of a costumed female with a skeleton face has become associated with the Day of the Dead, and Catrina figures often are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead observances.

A common symbol of the holiday is the skull (in Spanish calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (colloquial term for skeleton), and foods such as sugar or chocolate skulls, which are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead. Sugar skulls as gifts can be given to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits, often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.

The traditions and activities that take place in celebration of the Day of the Dead are not universal, often varying from town to town. For example, in the town of Pátzcuaro on the Lago de Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, the tradition is very different if the deceased is a child rather than an adult. On November 1 of the year after a child’s death, the godparents set a table in the parents’ home with sweets, fruits, pan de muerto, a cross, a rosary (used to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for them) and candles. This is meant to celebrate the child’s life, in respect and appreciation for the parents. There is also dancing with colorful costumes, often with skull-shaped masks and devil masks in the plaza or garden of the town. At midnight on November 2, the people light candles and ride winged boats called mariposas (butterflies) to Janitzio, an island in the middle of the lake where there is a cemetery, to honor and celebrate the lives of the dead there.

In contrast, the town of Ocotepec, north of Cuernavaca in the State of Morelos, opens its doors to visitors in exchange for veladoras (small wax candles) to show respect for the recently deceased. In return the visitors receive tamales and atole. This is only done by the owners of the house where someone in the household has died in the previous year. Many people of the surrounding areas arrive early to eat for free and enjoy the elaborate altars set up to receive the visitors from Mictlán.

In some parts of the country (especially the cities, where in recent years other customs have been displaced) children in costumes roam the streets, knocking on people’s doors for a calaverita, a small gift of candies or money; they also ask passersby for it. This relatively recent custom is similar to that of Halloween’s trick-or-treating.

Some people believe possessing Day of the Dead items can bring good luck. Many people get tattoos or have dolls of the dead to carry with them. They also clean their houses and prepare the favorite dishes of their deceased loved ones to place upon their altar or ofrenda.

Observances outside Mexico

Europe

In Christian Europe, Roman Catholic customs absorbed pagan traditions, and All Saints Day and All Souls Day became the autumnal celebration of the dead. Over many centuries, rites were moved from cultivated fields to cemeteries.

In many countries with a Roman Catholic heritage All Saints Day and All Souls Day have evolved traditions in which people take the day off work, go to cemeteries with candles and flowers, and give presents to children, usually sweets and toys.[13] In Portugal and Spain ofrendas (“offerings”) are made on this day. In Spain, the play Don Juan Tenorio is traditionally performed. In Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain, people bring flowers (typically chrysanthemums in France) to the graves of dead relatives and say prayers over the dead.

As part of a promotion by the Mexican embassy in Prague, Czech Republic, some local citizens join in a Mexican-style Day of the Dead. A theatre group produces an events featuring masks, candles, and sugar skulls.[14]

Latin America

Dia de los ñatitas (“Day of the Skulls”) is a festival celebrated in La Paz, Bolivia, on May 5. In pre-Columbian times indigenous Andeans had a tradition of sharing a day with the bones of their ancestors on the third year after burial. Today families keep only the skulls for such rituals. Traditionally, the skulls of family members are kept at home to watch over the family and protect them during the year. On November 9, the family crowns the skulls with fresh flowers, sometimes also dressing them in various garments, and making offerings of cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol, and various other items in thanks for the year’s protection. The skulls are also sometimes taken to the central cemetery in La Paz for a special Mass and blessing.[15][16][17]

The Brazilian public holiday of Finados (Day of the Dead) is celebrated on November 2. Similar to other Day of the Dead celebrations, people go to cemeteries and churches with flowers and candles, and offer prayers. The celebration is intended as a positive honoring of the dead. Memorializing the dead draws from indigenous, African and European Catholic origins.

In Ecuador the Day of the Dead is observed to some extent by all parts of society, though it is especially important to the indigenous Kichwa peoples, who make up an estimated quarter of the population. Indigena families gather together in the community cemetery with offerings of food for a day-long remembrance of their ancestors and lost loved ones. Ceremonial foods include colada morada, a spiced fruit porridge that derives its deep purple color from the Andean blackberry and purple maize. This is typically consumed with guagua de pan, a bread shaped like a swaddled infant, though variations include many pigs—the latter being traditional to the city of Loja. The bread, which is wheat flour-based today, but was made with masa in the pre-Columbian era, can be made savory with cheese inside or sweet with a filling of guava paste. These traditions have permeated into mainstream society, as well, where food establishments add both colada moradaand gaugua de pan to their menus for the season. Many non-indigenous Ecuadorians partake in visiting the graves of the deceased, cleaning and bringing flowers, or preparing the traditional foods, too.[18]

Guatemalan celebrations of the Day of the Dead are highlighted by the construction and flying of giant kites[19] in addition to the traditional visits to grave sites of ancestors. A big event also is the consumption of fiambre, which is made only for this day during the year.

Oceania

Mexican-style Day of the Dead celebrations occur in major cities in Australia, Fiji, and Indonesia. Additionally, prominent celebrations are held in Wellington, New Zealand, complete with altars celebrating the deceased with flowers and gifts.[20]

The Philippines

While ancestor veneration is an ancient part of Filipino culture, the modern observance is believed to have been imported from Mexico when the islands (as part of the Spanish East Indies) were governed from Mexico City as part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.[citation needed] During the holiday (observed on the 1st day of November), Filipinos customarily visit family tombs and other graves, which they then repair and clean. Entire families spend a night or two at their loved ones’ tombs, passing time with card games, eating, drinking, singing and dancing—activities that would be considered improper in some cultures. Prayers such as the rosary are often said for the deceased, who are normally offered candles, flowers, food and even liquor. Some Catholic Chinese Filipino families additionally offer joss sticks to the dead, and observe customs otherwise associated with the Hungry Ghost Festival.

United States

In many American communities with Mexican residents Day of the Dead celebrations are very similar to those held in Mexico. In some of these communities, such as in Texas,[21] and Arizona,[22] the celebrations tend to be mostly traditional. For example, the All Souls Procession has been an annual Tucson, Arizonaevent since 1990. The event combines elements of traditional Day of the Dead celebrations with those of pagan harvest festivals. People wearing masks carry signs honoring the dead and an urn in which people can place slips of paper with prayers on them to be burned.[23] Likewise, Old Town San Diego, California annually hosts a very traditional two-day celebration culminating in a candlelight procession to the historic El Campo Santo Cemetery.[24]

Santa Ana, California is said to hold the “largest event in Southern California” honoring Día de los muertos, called the annual Noche de Altares, which began in 2002.[25] The celebration of the Day of the Dead in Santa Ana has grown to two large events with the creation of an event held at the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center for the first time on November 1, 2015.[26]

In other communities interactions between Mexican traditions and American culture are resulting in celebrations in which Mexican traditions are being extended to make artistic or sometimes political statements. For example, in Los Angeles, California, the Self Help Graphics & Art Mexican-American cultural center presents an annual Day of the Dead celebration that includes both traditional and political elements, such as altars to honor the victims of the Iraq War highlighting the high casualty rate among Latino soldiers. An updated, intercultural version of the Day of the Dead is also evolving at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.[27]There, in a mixture of Mexican traditions and Hollywood hip, conventional altars are set up side-by-side with altars to Jayne Mansfield and Johnny Ramone. Colorful native dancers and music intermix with performance artists, while sly pranksters play on traditional themes.

Similar traditional and intercultural updating of Mexican celebrations are held in San Francisco. For example, the Galería de la Raza, SomArts Cultural Center, Mission Cultural Center, de Young Museum and altars at Garfield Square by the Marigold Project.[28] Oakland is home to Corazon Del Pueblo in the Fruitvale district. Corazon Del Pueblo has a shop offering handcrafted Mexican gifts and a museum devoted to Day of the Dead artifacts. Also, the Fruitvale district in Oakland serves as the hub of the Dia de Los Muertos annual festival which occurs the last weekend of October. Here, a mix of several Mexican traditions come together with traditional Aztec dancers, regional Mexican music, and other Mexican artisans to celebrate the day.[29] In Missoula, Montana skeletal celebrants on stilts, novelty bicycles, and skis parade through town.[30] The festival also occurs annually at historic Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston’s Jamaica Plainneighborhood. Sponsored by Forest Hills Educational Trust and the folkloric performance group La Piñata, the Day of the Dead festivities celebrate the cycle of life and death. People bring offerings of flowers, photos, mementos, and food for their departed loved ones, which they place at an elaborately and colorfully decorated altar. A program of traditional music and dance also accompanies the community event.

The Smithsonian Institution, in collaboration with the University of Texas at El Paso and Second Life, have created a Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum and accompanying multimedia e-book: Día de los Muertos: Day of the Dead. The project’s website contains some of the text and images which explain the origins of some of the customary core practices surrounding the Day of the Dead, such as the background beliefs and the offrenda (the special altar commemorating one’s deceased loved one).[31] The Made For iTunes multimedia e-book version provides additional content, such as further details; additional photogalleries; pop-up profiles of influential Latino artists and cultural figures over the decades; and video clips[32] of interviews with artists who make Dia de los Muertos-themed artwork, explanations and performances of Aztec and other traditional dances, an animation short that explains the customs to children, virtual poetry readings in English and Spanish.[33][34]

Similar traditions

Many other cultures around the world have similar traditions of a day set aside to visit the graves of deceased family members. Often included in these traditions are celebrations, food and beverages, in addition to prayers and remembrances of the departed.

In some African cultures, visits to ancestors’ graves, the leaving of food and gifts, and the asking of protection from them serve as important parts of traditional rituals, such as one ritual that is held just before the start of the hunting season.[35]

The Qingming Festival (simplified Chinese: 清明节; traditional Chinese: 清明節; pinyin: qīng míng jié) is a traditional Chinese festival usually occurring around April 5 of the Gregorian calendar. Along with Double Ninth Festival on the 9th day of the 9th month in the Chinese calendar, it is a time to tend to the graves of departed ones. In addition, in the Chinese tradition, the seventh month in the Chinese calendar is called the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits come out from the underworld to visit earth.

The Bon Festival (O-bon (お盆?), or only Bon (?)), is a Japanese Buddhist holiday held in August to honor the spirits of departed ancestors. It is derived in part from the Chinese observance of the Ghost Month, and was affixed to the solar calendar along with other traditional Japanese holidays.

In Korea, Chuseok (추석, 秋夕; also called Hangawi) is a major traditional holiday. People go where the spirits of their ancestors are enshrined, and perform ancestral worship rituals early in the morning; they visit the tombs of immediate ancestors to trim plants, clean the area around the tomb, and offer food, drink, and crops to their ancestors.

During the Nepali holiday of Gai Jatra (“Cow Pilgrimage”), every family who has lost a member during the previous year creates a tai out of bamboo branches, cloth, and paper decorations, in which are placed portraits of the deceased. As a cow traditionally leads the spirits of the dead into the afterlife, an actual or symbolic cow is used depending on local custom. The festival is also a time to dress up in costume reminiscent of the western Halloween, with popular subjects including political commentary and satire.[36]

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