A Celebration of Life in Death

Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead – is a celebration in Mexico of the dead that takes place on All Saints and All Souls Days. While All Saints Day is celebrated through much of the Catholic world, it is in central and Southern Mexico where it really became an important holiday that merged Catholic tradition with indigenous Aztec customs. In 2008 the tradition was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer and was part of an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. After the Spanish arrived in Mexico, it was moved to October 31, November 1, and November 2 to coincide with the Roman Catholic triduum festival of AllhallowtideAll Saints’ EveAll Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day

Dia de los Muertos is really a celebration of life! It reminds us that we have come from all of our ancestors who have preceded us.

The holiday actually should be called Dias de los Muertos because it’s celebrated over several days. The belief is that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31. On November 1(Día de los Inocentes – “Day of the Innocents”, also known as Día de los Angelitos – “Day of the Little Angels”), the spirits of children are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. November 2 is referred to as Día de los Muertos and is the day spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.

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This little angel grave marker is nestled amongst thousands of candles which illuminate the cemetery in Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca. Here, family members will sit vigil in the cemetery throughout the night of October 31, to welcome the “angelitos” or dead children’s spirits the moment they are released from heaven to come home to visit their parents.

Lives of the deceased are toasted with drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. The festivities are an acknowledgement that death is a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to visit their loved ones. There is no mourning or sadness but happiness and joy in the thought of the reunion of beloved family members.

In most Indian villages, beautiful altars (ofrendas) are made in each home. They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil & bright red cock’s combs) mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa, and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos.

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This woman artisan is decorating her home ofrenda with candles, copal, fruits, cempasuchil (wild marigolds), cock’s comb and saint’s images. Later, when the home cooking is done, she’ll bring big plates of food to offer to the spirits of her returning loved ones.

On the afternoon of Nov. 2, the festivities for the adults are taken to the cemetery. People clean tombs, play cards, listen to the village band and reminisce about their loved ones. Cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches on the ofrendas erected at the cemetery.

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Families tidying and decorating graves at a cemetery in Almoloya del Río in the State of Mexico
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Families keeping vigil at the cemetery

The most familiar symbol of Dia de los Muertos may be the calacas and calaveras(skeletons and skulls), which appear everywhere during the holiday: in candied sweets, as parade masks, and as toys. Calacas and calaveras are almost always portrayed as enjoying life, often in fancy clothes and entertaining situations.

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This celebration is beginning to slowly move throughout the United States, particularly as Spanish-speaking migrants make their way through America. Here is an Episcopal Church in Vermont celebrating All Saints Day with Dia de los Muertos banners made by the congregation to commemorate their loved ones.

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Houston has its own celebrations of Day of the Dead and you can be part of them at the upcoming Heritage Excursion sponsored by the Archaeological Institute. A bus tour will take you to Hollywood Cemetery where you’ll see decorated graves and then to a festival at MECA where you’ll have a chance to shop for your own sugar skulls as well as experience music and dance celebrating the day. Then, you’ll be part of a private tour of Lawndale Art Center, known for its displays of Dia de los Muertos art and ofrendas. Docents along the way will introduce you to the customs and rituals of the festivities. It is a wonderful way to celebrate the memories of our loved ones who are now gone… through art, cooking, music, building ofrendas, doing activities with our children, we can recount family stories, fun times and lessons learned… not how the person died, but how they lived.

Get your tickets by calling 713.364.6344. Tickets are $25. Learn more by visiting our facebook page at Houston Archaeology or our website at aia-houston.com

This tour is generously underwritten by SCI

Portions of this blog post excerpted from this website: http://www.mexicansugarskull.com/