There are a lot of misconceptions out there regarding Día de los Muertos. Many people think that it is the “Latin Halloween” and many places commercialize it that way. However, that is not the case so I decided to take a stab at briefly (but hopefully truly) demystifying Día de los Muertos celebration.
Día de los Muertos is a very traditional and popular celebration in Mexico and part of Central America. The origins of this celebration date back to the Indians of Mesoamérica – Aztecas, Mayas, Purepechas, Nahuas y Totonacas – However, it is not exclusively a pre-Hispanic tradition but a fusion of two: Indigenous and Spanish.
The festivity known today as Día de los Muertos fell in the 9th month of the Azteca solar calendar which was close to the beginning of August, and it was celebrated for a full month. The festivities were led by the Mictecacihuatl god, known as the “Goddess of Death “. They were dedicated to celebrating children and the lives of departed family members.
When the Spaniards arrived in America and, in an attempt to convert the Indians to Catholicism, they moved the celebration to the beginning of November so that it would coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day festivities, thus creating Dia de los Muertos. All Saint’s Day falls one day after Halloween – a pagan Celtic festival celebrating , the end of the harvest season, the beginning of winter or the ‘darker half’ of the year and when the souls of the dead (good and bad) were said to revisit their homes. The Spaniards combined the Halloween and the Mesoamerican festivals customs creating this way Día de los Muertos.
Día de los Muertos celebration in Mexico consists of the desire to reunite with the passing souls who they have loved; the desire to have them visit and at the same time the fear of them staying. To facilitate the soul’s return to earth, Mexicans give offerings to the departed. Families spread flower petals, place candles, offerings and keepsakes throughout the stretch between the house and the cemetery. The favorite foods of the deceased are carefully prepared, then placed around the family altar and the grave amongst the flowers and artisanal objects.
The offerings represent the obligation of the people to receive and take care of the souls during their annual return home as well as to offer them what they do not have available in the afterlife. The arrangements are carefully planned – the belief is that a departed can bring fortune (i.e. a great crop), or misfortune (illness, accidents, financial difficulties, etc.) depending on their perception of how well the family handled the rituals.
Very briefly, these are some of the ingredients in this celebration. Death is part of life. Each November 2nd this celebration represents a rich array of activities, rituals, ceremonies, customs and beliefs which are practiced in cities and towns all over Mexico and here in the USA – a colorful and rich folklore celebrating the departed.