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Día de los Muertos: A Unique Mexican Holiday

October 12, 2018

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and Nahua people. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit. And during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s Day of the Dead celebrations are a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.

First and foremost, Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of Halloween. The two annual events differ greatly in tradition and tone. Whereas Halloween is a frivolous night of trick-or-treat mischief, Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of life-affirming joy. While the theme is death, the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. Coco, the computer-animated fantasy film released last year, was inspired by Day of the Dead celebrations and encapsulates many of its themes. In towns and cities throughout Mexico, including San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, revelers don makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones.

Celebrations feature colorful calaveras (skulls) and calacas (skeletons). An altar, or ofrenda, is often built in private homes and cemeteries. These altars are not for worshipping. They’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re adorned with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, a favorite meal, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative.

For the living, offerings include Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, a typical sweet bread (pan dulce) dotted with anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolize sorrow.

Sugar skulls are part of a sugar art tradition brought by 17th-century missionaries. Pressed in molds and decorated with crystalline colors, they come in all sizes and levels of complexity.

Drinks? There’s pulque, a sweet fermented beverage made from the agave sap; atole, a thin warm porridge made from corn flour, with unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla added; and hot chocolate.

Thanks to the global sharing of information, Día de los Muertos is more popular than ever. If you see people dancing happily through the streets dressed as skeletons early next month, understand that they’re celebrating a holiday added by UNESCO to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos, a holiday that endures as a reaffirmation of indigenous life.

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