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Día De Los Muertos: What It Is Beyond Sugar Skulls

Yes, I’m gonna go ahead and say it. If you’ve recently watched Disney’s Coco, you probably already consider yourself an expert on Día de los Muertos. But let me tell you, there are still a lot of misconceptions about this day, and we’re here to clear them out.

Believe it or not, Day of the Dead is not Mexican Halloween. And although this festivity is mostly associated with Mexico, we can find it in other parts of Latin America and even the US. So, what is Día de los Muertos and where does it come from?

Origins of Día de los Muertos

Death has always been admired, feared, explored and celebrated by humankind. And so, Day of the Dead began to take root about 3,000 years ago by Latin American indigenous populations, like the Aztecs.

They honored Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death or, literally, ‘the lady of the dead’, and the celebrations originally took place during the summer months.

The Spaniards, being the conquistadores (‘conquerors’) that they were, could not fathom the paganity of it all. So obviously the celebration didn’t stay the same. It moved to November 1 and 2, matching the Catholic holidays of Día de Todos los Santos (‘All Saints Day’) and Día de los Fieles Difuntos (‘Day of the Faithful Departed’).

Or so the story goes. It’s not easy to really know how accurate this representation is, as most traditions that we know from Pre-Columbine times were mostly written by those who wanted to abolish them.

How To Celebrate Today

Much like Cinco de Mayo, Dia de los Muertos has become quite popular in the US due to the large Latino Community, especially Mexican-Americans. When different cultures come into contact with each other, it’s quite difficult to avoid celebrating festivities as if they were our own.

What we have to bear in mind is that Day of the Dead is a spiritual time, filled with traditions and practices meant to honor death. The way Mexicans do this is quite different from what we may be used to in the US.

It’s all about la familia, getting together to bond over the loss of our loved ones. We loved them, we miss them. And yet it’s not the time to mourn, but to celebrate their lives with music, food, drinks and dancing.

If Día de los Muertos is not part of your culture, but you want to celebrate with the community, that’s absolutely fine! Remember to be respectful, stay informed, and show interest in the traditional practices of this holiday.

Día de los Muertos Concepts 101

  • Altar

Basically a homemade altar setting, with pictures of the departed loved ones where the ofrendas are presented to them. They can be quite elaborate, with different levels and usually topped with an arco (‘arch’). They are heavily decorated with velas (‘candles’) and Cempasúchil flowers.

  • Ofrendas

As the name suggests, it’s the gifts offered to the passed loved ones in the altars. They consist of their favorite food, drinks, and personal items. This is meant to welcome them back, and enjoy a family-bonding experience once again. Something that can’t be missing among the ofrendas is the traditional Pan de Muerto (‘bread of the dead’). It’s a delicious sweet bread, typically flavored with anise seed and orange zest.

  • Flor de Cempasúchil

Also known as Mexican Marigolds, these beautiful flowers are Native to Mexico, and legend ties them to Día de los Muertos. With their vibrant color and strong scent, they guide the souls back to the altars and families that love and await them.

  • Calaveras

Skulls, or more like, sugar skulls, are often seen as the epitome of Día de los Muertos. They certainly held huge symbolic importance for the Aztecs. But in the past century or so, the calavera is used to represent mortality, equal for all, no matter your social status during life. The best representation we have of this is La Catrina, a female skeleton dressed in fancy robes.

  • Papel Picado

This last symbol from the Day of the Dead is also believed to be an Aztec legacy, as they used to chisel spirit figures into wood. They now are considered Mexican folk art and can be spotted all around Mexico’s streets during almost any holiday.

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