Honoring the dead occurs in ancient cultures all over the world, and even in modern times it plays an important role in religions. It is founded on the belief that the dead live on and are able to influence the lives of later generations. These ancestors can assert their powers by blessing or cursing, and their worship is inspired by both respect and fear. Rituals consist of praying, presenting gifts, and making offerings. In some cultures, people try to get their ancestors’ advice through oracles before making important decisions.
The dead are believed by the peasantry of many Catholic countries to return to their former homes on All Souls’ Night and partake of the food of the living. In Tyrol, cakes are left for them on the table and the room kept warm for their comfort. In Brittany, people flock to the cemeteries at nightfall to kneel, bareheaded, at the graves of their loved ones, and to anoint the hollow of the tombstone with holy water or to pour libations of milk on it. At bedtime, the supper is left on the table for the souls. In Bolivia, many people believe that the dead eat the food that is left out for them. Some claim that the food is gone or partially consumed in the morning.
The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and other countries can be traced back to the indigenous peoples such as the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Mexican, Aztec, Maya, P’urhépecha, and Totonac. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2500–3000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, it was common to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead,” corresponding to the modern Catrina.
In most regions of Mexico, November 1st honors deceased children and infants where as deceased adults are honored on November 2nd. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1st mainly as “Día de los Inocentes” (Day of the Innocents) but also as “Día de los Angelitos” (Day of the Little Angels) and November 2nd as “Día de los Muertos” or “Día de los Difuntos” (Day of the Dead).
Many people believe that during the Day of the Dead, it is easier for the souls of the departed to visit the living. People will go to cemeteries to communicate with the souls of the departed, and will build private altars, containing the favorite foods and beverages, and photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.
Plans for the festival are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods to be offered to the dead. During the period of November 1 and November 2, families usually clean and decorate graves; most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas, or offerings, which often include orange marigolds called “cempasúchitl.” In modern Mexico this name is often replaced with the term “Flor de Muerto” (“Flower of the Dead”). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings.
Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or little angels), and bottles of tequila, mezcal, pulque or atole for adults. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) or sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. The ofrendas are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the “spiritual essence” of the ofrenda food, so even though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so that the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives.
Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes. These altars usually have the Christian cross, statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other persons, and scores of candles. Traditionally, families spend some time around the altar praying and telling anecdotes about the deceased. In some locations, celebrants wear shells on their clothing so when they dance the dead will wake up because of the noise. Some will dress up as the deceased.
Public schools at all levels build altars with offerings, usually omitting the religious symbols. Government offices usually have at least a small altar, as this holiday is seen as important to the Mexican heritage.
Those with writing talent sometimes create short poems, called “calaveras” (“skulls”), mocking epitaphs of friends, sometimes describing interesting habits and attitudes or some funny anecdotes. This custom originated in the 18th-19th century, after a newspaper published a poem narrating a dream of a cemetery in the future, “and all of us were dead”, proceeding to “read” the tombstones. Newspapers dedicate calaveras to public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator. Theatrical presentations of Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla (1817–1893) are also traditional on this day.
Island Pacanda, Lake Patzcuaro Mexico – Dia de los MuertosA common symbol of the holiday is the skull (colloquially called calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (colloquial term for “skeleton”), and foods such as sugar skulls, which are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead. Sugar skulls are gifts that can be given to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes, from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.
José Guadalupe Posada created a famous print of a figure that he called “La Calavera de la Catrina” (“calavera of the female dandy”), as a parody of a Mexican upper class female. Posada’s striking image of a costumed female with a skeleton face has become associated with the Day of the Dead, and Catrina figures often are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead observances.
The traditions and activities that take place in celebration of the Day of the Dead are not universal and often vary from town to town. For example, in the town of Pátzcuaro on the Lago de Pátzcuaro in Michoacán the tradition is very different if the deceased is a child rather than an adult. On November 1 of the year after a child’s death, the godparents set a table in the parents’ home with sweets, fruits, pan de muerto, a cross, a Rosary (used to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for them) and candles. This is meant to celebrate the child’s life, in respect and appreciation for the parents. There is also dancing with colorful costumes, often with skull-shaped masks and devil masks in the plaza or garden of the town. At midnight on November 2, the people light candles and ride winged boats called mariposas (Spanish for “butterfly”) to Janitzio, an island in the middle of the lake where there is a cemetery, to honor and celebrate the lives of the dead there.
In contrast, the town of Ocotepec, north of Cuernavaca in the State of Morelos opens its doors to visitors in exchange for ‘veladoras‘ (small wax candles) to show respect for the recently dead. In return, the visitors receive tamales and ‘atole‘. This is only done by the owners of the house where somebody in the household has died in the previous year. Many people of the surrounding areas arrive early to eat for free and enjoy the elaborate altars set up to receive the visitors from ‘Mictlán‘.
In some parts of the country, children in costumes roam the streets, asking passersby for a calaverita, a small gift of money; they don’t knock on people’s doors.
Some people believe that possessing “dia de los muertos” items can bring good luck. Many people get tattoos or have dolls of the dead to carry with them. They also clean their houses and prepare the favorite dishes of their deceased loved ones to place upon an altar.
Collected from various sources.