By- Kelli Drummer-Avendano
El Día de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead is a unique and colorful custom celebrated in Mexico, parts of Central America, and in many U.S. cities. While it may fall close to Halloween, this celebration is distinctive for many reasons. Here are 8 facts about this fascinating festivity:
1. There’s nothing to be afraid of!
Sure there are skeletons, picnics in the graveyard, and offerings for the departed, but Day of the Dead is not supposed to be scary. During this celebration, the spirits of the dead are welcomed, not feared! It’s a time to remember and honor loved ones and ancestors from long ago. This celebratory occasion isn’t sad either because death is seen as an extension of life.
2. It’s actually 2 days.
The Day of the Dead takes place on November 1st and 2nd. The first day is set aside to remember children and infants, which is why it’s called Día de Los Angelitos or The Day of Little Angels. November 2nd is the traditional Día de Los Muertos and coincides with the Catholic holiday called All Souls’ Day.
3. It’s been around longer than Christmas!
The origins of Day of the Dead date back to the pre-Columbian cultures that inhabited Mexico and Central America, who had been celebrating and honoring the deceased for over 2,000 years. One of those ceremonies took place in August and included the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead.” After the Spanish invaded and conquered Central America in the 15th century, they wanted to convert the indigenous populations to Catholicism, so they moved this traditional ritual to the beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.
4. One of the main events takes place in a graveyard.
A cemetery may not seem like an ideal setting for a fiesta, but for this party, it’s where you’ll want to go to welcome back the spirits of your loved ones. Families take great care to clean and decorate the graves of their dearly departed. They create elaborate altars and prepare the deceased’s favorite food and drink to enjoy during their vigil.
5. You’ll see a lot of marigolds.
The Mexican marigold is called cempasúchil and is known as the “flower of the dead.” They are used to decorate the graves, altars, or small shrines people keep at their homes to honor their family members. The color and strong scent is given off by these flowers are said to attract the dead and guide them back to their families.
6. Food is for the living and the dead.
Dead bread or pan de muerto is a typical treat enjoyed during Day of the Dead by both the living and the departed. This sweet bread is decorated with sugar and topped with small pieces of bread shaped like bones. Another traditional sweet indulgence is sugar skulls, which are exactly that: sugar in the shape of skulls colorfully decorated with pink, orange, green, and yellow icing.
7. There are four important elements.
The altar is one of the most important traditions of this holiday and every altar should have four natural elements represented: earth, wind, fire, and water. Earth is often signified with flowers, wind can been seen when the light of a candle flickers, which is also used for fire, and a glass of water is placed on the altar to complete the four elements.
8. La Catrina is a famous calavera (skull).
If you search for images of Day of the Dead, you’re sure to see La Catrina. In the 1800s, the famous Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada drew an “elegant” female skeleton wearing a big hat with feathers to poke fun at the Mexican upper class. Since then, La Catrina has been synonymous with this holiday that makes light of death and chooses instead to celebrate and remember life.