Since ghouls will be crying out “Trick or Treat!” at your door tonight, you might like to know about other traditions happening. It’s the Day of the Dead: El Día De Los Muertos!
How are the Day of the Dead and Halloween Different?
The Day of the Dead shares some of the same roots with Halloween, coming from the Christian feast days of All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day but took some interesting branches away from the original. Instead of being combined with Celtic harvest festivals and the mischievousness of youth like in the United States, the Day of the Dead leaned into the indigenous festivals of the Aztecs.
A month-long celebration at the end of summer of the goddess Mictecacihuatle, guardian of the bones and master of the underworld, slowly joined the Catholic All Saints’ Day at the end of October. It is less about scary costumes, trick or treating, haunted houses, or the consumption of candy than other Halloween iterations around the world. It originated in southern stretches of Mexico, but has been embraced by the rest of the country and has spread to other Central and South American countries, Spain, and the United States.
How long does Día de Los Muertos last?
The official Day of the Dead is November 2nd, but the celebration actually lasts from the 31st of October through the 2nd of November, much longer than many other celebrations, but much shortened from the original Aztec festival. Many people will indulge in a day of Halloween costumes and fun on the 31st, but then the gates of heaven open at midnight on the Day of the Innocents. This is when the spirits of children return to Earth to visit with their families. These little angels get their own special day of remembrance. The adults come the following day.
What makes Dia de Los Muertos so special?
Day of the Dead honors those who have passed on in ways Halloween falls far short. It is like Memorial Day and Halloween rolled into one, with some extra bits added for more flavor. There is something uniquely amazing about all the people painting their faces, cleaning up cemeteries, and preparing the favorite meals of their loved ones to place on altars as offerings to the deceased.
The Day of the Dead is filled with the scents of good food and fresh-cut marigolds, the sounds of laughter and music, and the bright visuals of painted skulls and decorations. It is a time to dance, sing, tell stories, write poetry, light candles, eat well, and give gifts.
Why all the skulls?
The brightly painted skulls have evolved over time from, once again, a mixture of Aztec culture and the groups that came after. They are a combination of the goddess of the underworld, the lady of the dead herself, and the skeletal cartoon caricatures that Jose Guadalupe Posada used as social and political satire. These skeleton cartoons poked fun at human foibles while acting as great equalizers, showing that we all end up in the same place regardless of race, wealth, or other sources of power or prestige.
Other artists took Posada’s “La Catrina” imagery and continued it, creating a tradition of elegantly clad skeletons in murals and sculptures. Sugar art was brought to Mexico in the 1700s and turned into a way to make candy, decorations, and toys for religious festivals. Candy skulls made of sugar with the name of a departed soul written on them in icing became a natural way to honor and invite the spirit to visit. It has transformed into a fun and sweet addition to the Day of the Dead festivities. These skulls are not meant to be scary but are brightly painted with icing in whimsical patterns. Similar face paintings have since followed these traditions, along with masks, toys, and dolls. They can be seen in parades, at parties, along tombstones, and on altars everywhere during these three special days.
How can I celebrate the Day of the Dead?
Look for local festivities where you live. Many communities have parades, parties, and other celebrations that include the Day of the Dead. Ask your friends from Mexico about their traditions. Paint your pumpkins in brightly colored swirls, dots, and flowers this year rather than the carvings of jack-o’-lanterns. Buy and decorate candy skulls. Visit the cemetery, clean up the graves, honor your loved ones, light candles, and make ofrendas to those who have passed on. Tell stories about your deceased friends and family. Eat their favorite foods in remembrance. Don’t forget that this is a celebration of those who have passed on, not a time of fear or sorrow. So dance, sing, play, and enjoy it.