The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #1 January / February 2013
Day of the Dead
by Sonja Krüger
January / February 2013 | 

Family altar

Every year in Mexico, at the start of November, people celebrate and remember their family members and loved ones that have died in a festival called "Día de los Muertos" ("Day of the Dead"). People gather together to pray, honor and reacquaint themselves with their deceased with food, flowers, parades and dance. It takes place on November 1, to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (which is November 2).

The tradition can be traced back over 3000 years, to the Aztecs that would take a day each year to seem to mock death. At least, that is how it would appear to the Spanish Conquistadors that landed on what is now modern day Mexico over 500 years ago. The indigenous people kept skulls as trophies and would put them on display during this to symbolize death and rebirth. This month long celebration was held on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar (about the same as our August). The natives viewed death not as the end of life but as a continuation of it, which they embraced. They felt that only in death, does one truly become awake from the dream of life. Their festival was presided over by the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, whom the natives called "Lady of the Dead".

Day of the Dead celebrations at the cemetery of San Antonio Tecómitl, Mexico.

To the Spaniards, this was viewed as barbaric, and as part of the effort to convert the natives to Catholicism, they tried to put a stop to the festival, but failed. They then decided to make it more "Christian" by moving it to the start of November, to match their own Catholic celebration, much the way Christmas was moved to December to "Christianize" the pagan Winter Solstice celebrations.

The modern Day of the Dead has its own "Lady of the Dead" in the form of the Catrina (sometimes spelled "Catarina"). In 1910, Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada created an image he called "La Calavera de la Catrina" ("skull of the rich woman) in a parody of a Mexican upper-class female. While most of his works were meant to be satirical, after this death they became associated with this holiday, and Catrina images and items are now a very prominent part of the celebration.

Participant in Catrina costume

On the day, people visit cemeteries to be with the spirits of their dead and build private altars containing the favorite foods, photos and memorabilia of the departed. This is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the words of the living for them. These can be sad or humorous as the participants remember funny events and stories about the departed. Altars may also be built at home, usually containing a Christian cross and icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary, many candles, and offerings ("ofrenda").

These offerings take many forms. For dead children ("los angelitos", or "the little angels"), toys are brought, while bottles of tequila or jars of atole (a traditional masa-based non-alcoholic hot drink) are set out for adults. Candy, "bread of the dead" ("pan de muerto"), and other foods are also set out, for some people believe the dead eat the "spiritual essence" of these foods. There are even little skulls made of sugar.

One of the most common symbols of the holiday is the skull ("calavera") which is incorporated into foods (like the sugar skulls), masks, costumes and face paints. Many foods and treats are also made to look like skulls and bones. Some also believe possessing Day of the Dead items will bring them good fortune, so they carry dolls of the dead and get tattoos. In some parts of Mexico, they have even started a custom similar to the trick-or-treating of Halloween in which the children go around knocking on people's doors for small gifts of candy or money.

Other Day of the Dead celebrations are held in various parts of the world on the same day, largely originating from the Mexico tradition. Brasil has its "Dia de Finados" in which people visit churches and cemetaries. Spain does similar, along with festivals and parades. African and Asian cultures have similar events. For a centuries old tradition that the Spaniards tried to destroy, the Day of the Dead tradition is very much.. alive!

Día de los Muertos - Day of the Dead
La Calavera de la Catrina - skull of the rich woman
ofrenda - offerings
los angelitos - the little angels
pan de muerto - bread of the dead
calavera - skull

Celebrations - Day of the Dead
Writer: Sonja Krüger
Tomascastelazo: Skulls title, Graveyard visit
Steve Bridger from Bristol, UK: Family altar
Eneas de Troya: Cemetary
Thelmadatter: Catrina costume
Stu Spivack: Bread of the Dead
karoly czifra: Cemetary in Budapest
ardelfin: Hillside shrines
• "Day of the Dead" Wikipedia <>
• "Day of the Dead" <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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