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