El Dia De Los Muertos, also known as “The Day of the Dead,” is a traditional Mexican holiday that celebrates the life and death of loved ones. Many of us know that it involves sugar skulls, colorful costumes, and lots of face paint. But there’s so much more to the holiday than just the American version that we know of. Many people may just think that the holiday is the Mexican version of our American Halloween. It’s pretty different, however. The only thing that’s similar really is the imagery of the skull. The celebration doesn’t even happen on Halloween! Granted, it’s around the same time, but that’s just one of many differences between the actual version and our American perception of the holiday.
The Day of the Dead doesn’t have much scariness or spookiness to it, and it definitely doesn’t involve dressing up in pop culture costumes going house to house to try and solicit candy from strangers. Even though Halloween is only a single day during the month of October, people begin celebrating Halloween mostly on the first of October, or the beginning of September if you’re totally obsessed. On the other hand, El Dia De Los Muertos focuses more on just one time during the month. Like many holidays, many people change certain traditions and aspects to suit their lifestyle and beliefs. That’s true for El Dia De Los Muertos, but for the most part, many traditional aspects remain. Here are 15 things you might not have known about The Day of the Dead!
15. It’s A Time For Spirits To Roam
The Day of the Dead focuses on just that, the dead. The people who celebrate this holiday believe that this day throughout the year is the time that spirits are capable of returning to the earth and walk among the living. Part of the reason that people wear skull costumes is in order to help those who might want to roam the Earth from beyond blend in with the rest of the population. Nowadays, those who celebrate the tradition don’t necessarily believe that there are ghosts walking around; however, the skull has become a major symbol of the celebration and remains the face, or lack thereof, of the holiday. Adding bright colors to the skull is a way to dress up the faces and celebrate the dead rather than make them out to be spooky or scary.
14. Span Of Two Days
The Day of the Dead is actually two days of the dead! It occurs on the first and second of November, although some parts of the world do celebrate it on Halloween. If not, however, that means a potential three days in a row of fun celebrations! November 1 usually consists of visiting the graves of loved ones, and celebrating the death of children and young ones. The second day is the celebration of the death of the adults in a person’s life. It isn’t actually the celebration of the death of the person, rather, the celebration of their life! It is a time to not be sad and mourn the loss of someone, but instead be happy and remember all of the good parts of their life!
13. The Marigold Is The Flower
The flowers of the dead are believed to be Marigolds. Marigolds look similar to the sun as they burst and bloom in a similar pattern. Their colors are also often very vibrant. For this reason, they represent life and hope, making them the perfect flower for the holiday! If you think of a flower for Halloween, you might imagine a black rose or some bloody and gruesome version of a floral picture. But instead for The Day of the Dead, you can see that there is a bright and vibrant alternative to our bloody and gruesome celebration. Those who participate in the celebrations dress up and decorate using the image of the marigold in order to help attract the dead to various offerings and festivals. This results in bright and beautiful decorations instead of the dark and creepy ones we like to use in our American festivities.
12. La Catrina Is The Most Popular Skeleton
The image of the skeleton is obviously a very notable image for The Day of the Dead. One image in particular is the most notable of them, however. That is the image of La Catrina, which translates into “The Elegant Skull.” The image is that of a woman who’s more elegant in nature and was created to be a parody of the upper class woman in Mexican culture. The artist was Jose Guadalupe Posada, who created the image in response to women in Mexican culture being forced into adopting the customs and traditions of the European culture. The image is a reminder of those around to not cover up or hide their culture. Instead, it is important to remember traditions and celebrate them in order to help our loved ones live on throughout history.
11. Altars Are Set Up Inside Homes
Altars are sometimes set up in order to remember and mourn our lost loved ones. Instead, for The Day of the Dead, altars are placed in order to help showcase the life of the dead loved one and give them a place to visit. On the day of the celebration, the altar is a place decorated in remembrance of the loved ones and offers up a location for them to return to when they come back from the dead. The altars are decorated with their favorite items to try and create a safe and comforting place for deceased loved ones to return to on their day that they walk the Earth. If the altar is honoring a child, you might also add some toys to the shrine as well. They sometimes feature religious symbols as well, such as crosses or the image of the virgin Mary.
10. Not Setting Up An Altar Is Not Good
An altar is probably one of the most important parts of the celebration. If you don’t set up an altar, shrine, or some sort of other sacred space to display memorabilia and offer a welcoming to a deceased loved one, you are believed to be cursed! It is thought that if you have no sort of offering for the loved one on the day, they will come back to haunt and terrorize you instead! This doesn’t mean that people are scared into celebrating, rather, it’s just one small spooky element to the bright and lively tradition. It’s just an urban legend and warning to be sure to remember those loved ones you’ve lost and not ignore the death or celebration. Some believe you’ll even get sick or ill after the day if you didn’t set up an altar!
9. Altars Are Set Up At Businesses
Altars aren’t just set up inside of people’s homes during this holiday. If you’re out and about in public settings during the holiday, you are likely to see other altars set up in businesses like banks, schools, and small stores. The day is all about celebrating those loved ones who have passed on, and offer them a place to return to visit. Some believe that those who have moved on might want to visit the place they worked, went to school, or gave business to often! This makes sense, as all of those spirits of relatives who didn’t set up an altar will need a place to go when they get to walk the Earth for just another night! Schools also celebrate the holiday and learn about it, so it makes sense that you would find at least one in every school, and possibly every classroom!
8. It’s All About That Sweet Bread
One big part of the celebration is Muertos, known as the bread of the dead. The celebration isn’t really “all about the bread,” but you are likely to find the sweet bread on most altars of those who have passed on. The bread is made throughout the days surrounding the celebration in order to fill the air with the smell, possibly waking the dead from their graves so they can find their way back home. Most of the time, the bread is formed into the shape of bones and decorated with frosting. The bread is placed on the altar but is also eaten at the gravesite and shrines of dead loved ones. Many variations exist of the bread to this day, but no matter what form, it’s customary to be sure to include the Pan de Muertos into the traditional celebrations.
7. The Spanish Didn’t Want It
During the time when Mexico was being colonized by Spain, the tradition of El Dia De Los Muertos was almost lost! Many people during this time who came over and began Europeanizing the country practiced strict Christian traditions. They believed the holiday was devilish, and wanted to end it! Of course, they failed in killing out the tradition, so they tried to Christianize it a bit. The original Day of the Dead took place in the summer, but was moved towards Halloween in order to fit in with European cultures. Nowadays, El Dia De Los Muertos is probably seen as more Christian than our modern Halloween! It’s not a devilish or sinful holiday and is a great and beautiful way to celebrate the life of a lost loved one!
6. Some Take The Party To The Graveyard
One of the coolest part of El Dia De Los Muertos is the celebrations that take place in the cemetery! Oftentimes, friends and family will visit the graves of their deceased loved ones on the first day of the celebration. This is so they can begin waking the spirits. Part of this process also involves decorating and adorning the grave in things that you would also decorate the altar with. Some families decide to keep the party going at the grave site, and cemeteries become a party spot for a night! This is a very cool tradition that we should have all the time! Cemeteries are dark and scary places the rest of the year, but really they should be more bright and lively in order to celebrate the dead instead of mourning in darkness.
5. Sugar Skulls Are Based On Actual Skulls Of Sugar
Now when you hear the term “sugar skull,” your mind probably goes to some sort of brightly colored or decorative skull. This is kind of true, but the real original sugar skull was just that, a skull made out of sugar! Just like Pan de Muertos, the sugar skull is another significant food item made during the time of the celebration. Sugar skulls come in all shapes and sizes and forms, but they are primarily candied skulls put on altars and graves in order to coax those deceased loved ones from their graves. The tradition began because Mexico had a high sugar production and not a lot of ways to make inexpensive art. They turned to creating skulls from sugar as it was simple and inexpensive. The tradition grew from there and is something still being celebrated today as a crucial part of Mexican history.
4. Some Celebrate By Flying Kites
Another tradition of El Dia De Los Muertos is to fly a kite during the celebration. Traditionally, the kites would take up to 40 days to make and consisted of using all elements of nature in order to craft the perfect kite. The beginning steps would involve unmarried men of a community collecting bamboo in order to make the frame. From there, only natural elements would be able to create the rest of the kite. The kite would then be flown on the day of the celebrations. The kites are seen as a way of communicating with the dead and a symbol for them to see and guide them to the different celebrations. It’s also just another beautiful element that adds a lot of color and gorgeous design to the already lively tradition.
3. It Is Seen As A Religious Holiday
El Dia De Los Muertos is seen as a national holiday in Mexico! This is probably one of the biggest differences between The Day of the Dead and Halloween. When something is considered a national holiday, it means that government offices as well as many businesses will shut down. When this celebration takes place, many cities do actually “shut down” in order to allow everyone to have a chance to celebrate. This means that it is also learned about, taught, and celebrated in public schools. Religious elements are taken away when taught in a public setting, but no doubt children are still celebrating the dead in school. The holiday is also part of the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO! This means that it is a very serious holiday and celebration and not just something fun and cheeky like Halloween.
2. Butterflies Are Thought To Be Dead People
One image that you don’t see too often but is still around consistently is that of the butterfly. Butterflies are often thought to be dead loved ones returning to their homes to visit relatives. It isn’t just any butterflies, however, but primarily monarchs. This is because monarchs usually migrate to Mexico by the first of November, just in time to celebrate El Dia De Los Muertos! Butterflies are just another beautiful colorful image that is a part of this bright celebration! The migration of these butterflies also still remains a mystery itself. It seems a little too coincidental that the two events happen so close to each other. But one thing to remember is that El Dia De Los Muertos actually happened during the summer, before the Monarch migration. But many ancient Aztecs still believed that the souls of loved ones did return in the form of butterflies.
1. It Does Have Some Spooky Elements
Although the Day of the Dead is seen as a bright, colorful, and lively celebration of the life of deceased loved ones, no doubt it still has its eerie elements. A lot of this is partially due to the fact that a lot of the traditions and customs of Halloween have trickled into many other cultures, and Halloween is all about the spooky. There’s also still a bit of a creepy element of the thought of loved ones returning to your home that you just can’t really shake. The most notable and memorable tale during the celebration is that of La Llorona. The story of La Llorona is about a young woman who murdered her children in order to please her boyfriend who didn’t want them. She then finds out that he doesn’t actually want to be with the woman anyway, causing her to drown herself. She then returns on The Day of the Dead in order to capture souls of lost children!