If I must die/I will encounter darkness as a bride,/And hug it in mine arms.
William Shakespeare Measure for Measure Act III, scene 1, line 83
For most Americans, death is something to grieve, especially if we have lost someone particularly close to us. When my brother passed away I was inconsolable for weeks. I couldn’t listen to certain music that reminded me of him, and looking at his picture was enormously difficult. We don’t really celebrate the life that was lost as much as we mourn what was taken from us, in our minds, way too soon.
Ghosts and spirits are unwelcome in most of the dominant American culture as well, with movies, plays, and songs abound with tales of hauntings and angry ghouls reaching out from the grave to terrorize us or plague us with their problems. Hamlet Sr. comes back from the great beyond to task his son with avenging his untimely death. Freddie Krueger haunts the dreams of his potential victim’s decades after being burned alive. Charlie Daniels sings a song about an old man, killed for his money, getting instant revenge against his attackers.
Bless the Mesoamericans, for this wasn’t the way they felt about death. For them, death was not separate from life. Death was just the next step in the journey, and every life that was lost would lead to the growth of new life in the form of plants, trees, and crops that spring up from the same earth a body is buried in. The ancient Mayans, Aztecs, and Toltecs had different times of the year when they would celebrate the dead and the manner in which they died.
That practice survived the Spanish Conquest and lives on today as Dia de los Muertos, or “The Day of the Dead.”
When is Dia de los Muertos Celebrated?
While the Spanish conquered the native peoples of Latin America, they weren’t able to destroy their whole belief system in the attempts to convert them from paganism to Catholicism. The celebrations of the dead were curbed from multiple events throughout the year to match up with two existing Spanish holidays: All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day, which fell on November 1st and 2nd, respectively. Since these dates are close to our traditional Halloween, many people who aren’t familiar with Dia de los Muertos believe it is a Mexican version of Halloween. That is not the case.
How is Dia de los Muretos Celebrated?
Preparations for Dia de los Muertos begin weeks before the actual days of celebration. Families make their way to the gravesites of their deceased loved ones and have a picnic among the tombstones. They also clean and decorate the graves, leaving behind flowers, candles, and incense. In Mexico the Campaschitl is the flower used for decoration, as its fragrance and color is said to help guide the spirits to their respective homes.
Once those spirits make it to the homes of their loved ones they are greeted by an Ofrenda, which is an altar filled with gifts for the deceased spirits visiting during Dia de los Muertos. The ofrenda also holds items that relate to the four classical elements of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air:
- Earth – Symbolized by offerings of food, including pan de muerto, literally “bread of the dead”
- Fire – Symbolized by candles on the alter
- Water – Symbolized by a clay or glass pitcher of actual water, given to the spirits to slack the thirst earned by travelling from the afterlife to the physical world
- Wind – Symbolized by papel picado, this perforated paper is made into elaborate designs
Assorted food and drink like fruit, chocolate, atole, and mole are placed on the altar, along with copal incense and flowers. For the spirits of children, toys and sugar skulls (calaveritas de azucar) are placed on the ofrenda. Pictures of the dead are also displayed.
As Dia de los Muertos is meant to honor the dead, not to mourn them, music is played and there are a couple of different dances performed during the celebration:
- La Danza de los Viejitos – Popular in the state of Michoacan, the name of this dance translates to “the dance of the little old men.” Children and adults dress up like old men and walk around bent over and holding their backs. All of a sudden they will jump up and dance vigorously
- La Danza de los Tecuanes – A colonial dance meant to symbolize the hunting of a jaguar or tiger by farmers. Dancers will portray the farmers while others will take on the role of the tiger or jaguar
Now that you know a little bit more about Dia de los Muertos, you can add the celebration to your winter holidays. And maybe, just maybe, honoring the dead will help lessen the pain of a lost loved one, knowing you are giving back to their spirit and paying them homage.