History of El dia de los Muertos

El  Dia de los Muertos is perhaps the most popular holiday in Mexico. Families come  together to honor their ancestors. The inevitability of death is accepted rather than  feared. El Dia de los Muertos goes back to the Aztecs, who had not just a few days  but an entire month dedicated to the dead. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl  . The annual rite features skeletons, altars and other trappings of death, but the  ancient holiday celebrates life in its embrace of death. The skeletons dance and sing.  Flowers, fruit and candy decorate altars. Death’s morbid side is buried under music and  remembrances.

In the Aztec calendar, this ritual fell roughly at the end of the Gregorian month of  July and the beginning of August. In the post-conquest era it was moved by Spanish priests  so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve “Dia de Todos  Santos,” The result is that Mexicans now celebrate the day of the dead during the  first two days of November.

El Dia de los Muertos has evolved in Mexico and other Central American countries  to include visits to graveyards, where families spruce up sites of deceased loved ones.  Revelers construct ofrendas, the offerings set out for returning souls. The spirits  may not partake of the altar’s many confections, but there are plenty of those not among  the life-disenfranchised more than happy to devour the candy skulls, sugar skeletons and  sweet pan de muerto (bread of the dead).

Yellow marigolds, known as “the flower of the dead”, and other fragrant flowers are used to communicate to the spirits the richness of the offering. Sometimes,  paths of marigold petals are spread by families to aid the souls in finding their way  home.

Handmade skeleton figurines, called Calacas, are especially popular. Calacas usually  show an active and joyful afterlife. The celebration of Los Dias de los Muertos, like the  customs of Halloween, evolved with the influences of the Celtics, the Romans, and the  Christian holy days of All Saints Day. But with added influences from the Aztec people of  Mexico. The Aztecs believed in an afterlife where the spirits of their dead would return  as hummingbirds and butterflies. Even images carved in the ancient Aztec monuments show  this belief – the linking the spirits of the dead and the Monarch butterfly.

Experts say that the holiday was nearly forgotten by Mexican-Americans until it was  resurrected in the United States in the early 1970s when Mexican-Americans underwent a  cultural reawakening. The holiday’s popularity has since spread to other races and  cultures.

The Heard Museum
The Arizona Republic