Happy Death: A History of Día de los Muertos

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Dia de Los Muertos, ceramic painted scull, maracasWhen was the last time you made a trip to a cemetery to visit the grave of a loved one—maybe to dust off a headstone or lay out some flowers? In the United States, many people do so on Memorial Day in May, which is when we honor veterans who died while serving in wars. But we don’t really have a holiday to pay tribute to everyone who has died under all circumstances. In Mexico, however, Día de los Muertos—“Day of the Dead”—is a holiday that does exactly that.

An ancient Aztec festival

Many people see the sugar skulls, face paint, and colorful skeleton decorations and assume that Día de los Muertos is simply an extension or alternate version of Halloween. But the origins of this holiday date back to pre-Hispanic times. It used to be celebrated during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar (roughly comparable to our month of August), when the Nahua people held a month-long festival in honor of the goddess Mictecacihuatl—or, for easier pronunciation, the Lady of the Dead. In Aztec mythology, she was the queen of the underworld and keeper of the bones of the deceased. By venerating Mictecacihuatl, the ancient Aztecs were also making it possible for their dead relatives to return for a visit.

When the Spanish conquered Mexico, the holiday fused with the Catholic observances of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and it was moved to coincide with these religious events. This means that the celebration of Día de los Muertos now occurs on November 1, to honor children who have died, and November 2, to honor adults who have died. Throughout the centuries, the holiday has remained positive and celebratory in nature rather than being a day of mourning.

Modern-day observance

In the pueblos of Mexico it’s still common to find altars piled high with things to invite deceased loved ones back for a visit: pictures, flowers, religious symbols, and favorite foods, objects, and toys (in the case of departed children). While many families still hold fast to this tradition, altars are harder to find in more urban areas. However, even in Mexico City, arguably the most fast-paced and contemporary city in the country, traffic is gridlocked on November 2 as people try to get out of the city and to the cemeteries where they’ll clean and decorate graves and visit those who have passed on. Luckily, it’s a federal holiday, so people have more time to get there!

Día de los Muertos is also celebrated outside Mexico in parts of Central and South America. It has recently gained prominence in the United States thanks to communities with a robust Latino presence. Traditional depictions of calaveras (skulls) and Catrinas (beautifully dressed female skeletons) have infiltrated pop culture and can be found on everything from sweatshirts to tattoos. While these representations can be festive, however, they are not without meaning. They’re powerful reminders for people to reconnect with those who have passed to the other side.

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