The marigolds will fade, the music will be softened, the festivities a warm memory, but the hearts of the Mexican people will be filled with renewed love for those souls of deceased relatives who are welcomed back for a brief visit this week during the celebration of el Dia los Muertos (The Day of the Dead).
The annual reunion is not a time of sorrow, but rather of exuberant gaiety and festivities: food, drinks, fire crackers, parades, altars, face painting, flowers, and general merry making.
This multi-day holiday is held from October 31-November 2, and is celebrated throughout Mexico with vigor, enthusiasm, and reverence. The last day of October is Halloween, the first day of November is ‘el Dia de los Inocentes’ (the day of the children), and All Saints Day. November 2 is All Souls Day or the Day of the Dead.
The 3,000-year-old tradition says the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours, and the spirits of adults can do the same on November 2.
The roots of this Mexican tradition are a blend of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion and Spanish culture. According to https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-americas/aztecs, the “Aztecs and other Nahua people living in what is now central Mexico held a cyclical view of the universe, and saw death as an integral, ever-present part of life.”
Mexicans embrace the annual Day of the Dead as a time to welcome those departed relatives and loved ones and celebrate with their spirits in remembrance and fun. They clean and then decorate grave sites with favorite foods, breads, and drinks, flower arrangements, music, laughter and a hearty sense of hospitality. You may hear neighbors and friends exchange the phrase “Feliz día de los Muerto,”, to send a wish for a good Day of the Dead.
The streets and stores are filled with calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls), considered the most common symbols of The Day of the Dead. Vendors offering face painting of skeletons on adults and children faces are found along parade routes and in the Jardins (gardens), and people will commonly wear skull masks and eat sugar candy molded into the shape of skulls.
Jose Guadalupe Posada, a 20th century printer and cartoonist, is believed to be the creator of La Calavera Catrina (Elegant Skull), a female skeleton dressed in dramatic, elegant and lavish attire. The Catrina has become the Day of the Dead icon most recognized and imitated.
To me, the most meaningful traditions are the building of the ofrendas, or altars, both at the cemeteries and in individual’s homes. These altars usually are decorated with candles, marigolds (cempasuchil), red cock’s combs as well as food such as stacks of tortillas, fruit, and candy, and will display pictures of the relatives, along with personal items.
For those who may be a bit turned off by skeletons, as was my attitude before my exposure to this meaningful holiday, I would encourage you to watch the movie Coco. It is not only delightful, but captures the deep and profound spirit of The Day of the Dead.
These first two days of November each year are ones I treasure and enjoy sharing with my Mexican friends. Come join the fun and welcome your loved ones’ return for their annual reunion.