El Dia De Muertos is a Mexican holiday that is dedicated to the celebration of the lives of loved ones who have passed away. It is celebrated during a period of time when the veil between the living and the dead is thin, when deceased loved ones are able to pay a visit to their living loved ones.
Very similar to what is seen in the Disney movie Coco.
While this holiday has a connection to death and remembrance, the energy that arises is not sad or melancholy, but rather festive and humorous. This is different from traditional mourning rituals in the US in the fact that death is not seen as a thing to fear, but a part of life.
Yet, it can also be a way to honor those who have passed, in remembrance of groups of people whose names we may not know, but whose memories are important as we are tied together.
In the past years, ofrendas have been made to immigrants and asylum seekers who have died in US custody, for the missing women of Juarez, and this year some will be dedicated to those who have passed from the Covid-19 Pandemic.
As with all Holidays, everyone has certain aspects in their rituals that are specific to their family or local community. An example of this would be the association with the migration of the Monarch butterflies to Michoacan during this time. The souls of dead loved ones are represented by their arrival to Michoacan in time for the Day of the Dead.
The night of November 2nd is what people typically think about when they hear about the Day of the dead, but El Dia de Muerto can be a two day tradition that takes place November 1st and 2nd.
November 1st, the lesser known day in the 2 day celebration is El Dia de los Angelitos.
Dia de los Angelitos
November 1st es El Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels).
This day is dedicated to children who have passed away. The reason for this date is due to the thought that children are eager to visit the land of the living and tend to arrive earlier than adults. In order to accommodate them and their journey, altars (ofrendas) are set up with things specifically for the children such as toys and candy.
Dia De Muertos and Religion
In old mesoamerican cultures, before the arrival of the Spanish.The celebration lasted for one month in the worship of Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld and Protector of the dead.
As the indigenous people of Mexico were colonized and Catholicism attempted to end this tradition. Despite violent attempts to end this tradition, Indegenous people continued to perform their rituals and the holiday shifted to how it is today.
The Catholic church introduced two other religious holidays that hold different traditions than those of the Day of the Dead.
All Saints day and All Souls day overlaps with the Day of the Little Angels and the Day of the Dead.
In the view of the church, children and innocent souls head directly towards heaven as their souls are pure. So November 1st is a day to honor the Catholic Saints.
Adults, as people who have sinned while alive, require prayers for their souls to rest peacefully on All Souls day November 2nd.
In some areas, priests may offer a sermon as people clean the tombstones of their loved ones. They leave flowers, and may create an altar in their home for their memory but do not offer ofrendas as they do not believe that their loved ones visit the land of the living after death. These rituals are somber compared to traditional Day of the Dead festivities.
What Is Done
Altars are set up in the home, decorated with images of loved ones and items for the spirits to enjoy. The graves of their loved ones are decorated in a similar manner.
Typical items, offerings, and symbols include:
Image: Picture of the deceased.
Calaveras (Sugar Skulls): A symbol of death, but brightly decorated as a reflection of life. They may have the name of a particular individual to honor them specifically.
Food: The favorite food of those who have died, for them to enjoy in their visit. Pan de muerto is also available, in different shapes and recipes but some commonly represent bones.
Cempasuchil (Mexican Marigolds): A seasonal flower, the strong aroma attracts the spirits and guides them to their family. The bright yellow is a symbol of the sun.
Candles: Also act as a guide for the spirits to find their way to their loved ones.
La Catrina: An elegant woman, symbol that death happens to everyone. She may also be referred to as the lady of death, or even a representation of Mictecacihuatl.
Papel Picado: Hand cut paper, signify the wind.
Other traditions include wearing traditional Mexican clothing, or even elegant dresses designed to represent the Day of the Dead festivities. Skulls or Catrina style face painting is also part of the traditional dress for this day.
Connecting with our culture(s)
Mexican communities have celebrated the Day of the Dead in local events in the US or with their families. Many aspects that are seen in the celebrations in Mexico are not performed in the US, namely the decorations and celebrations in the cemetery.
Ofrendas are set up in local agencies or in homes.
October is pregnancy and infant loss awareness month, which is a cause of grief for many families. Statistically, 1 in 4 women will lose their child during pregnancy, delivery, or infancy. I was not aware that this was a movement that people were raising awareness for, but I think it is important to note especially in the transition from October to November 1st for el Dia de los Angelitos.
El Dia de Muertos may look very different during the coronavirus pandemic, as a lot of celebrations are typically through community engagement.
Several agencies are holding events virtually, or holding a space for the community to come together in a manner that will allow social distancing and minimal exposure to other people.
Continuing traditions and allowing younger generations to explore their roots is something that the Hispanic community promotes in the US. I am confident that this tradition will not fade away as people continue to learn and explore their roots.