Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead is one of the most important holidays of Mexico. It is a complex, rich holiday that has its roots in ancient indigenous traditions and has been reshaped over the years by the Spanish conquest and the natural passage of time. Books have been written about it so there is a lot to say. But we are frequently asked about the holiday, so we’ve narrowed it down to a few important points…
Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of the American Halloween celebration. Although it occurs at nearly the same time as Halloween, spanning both November 1 and 2, this colorful holiday is rich in family tradition, symbolism, delicious food, and beautiful flower and candle decorations. And lots of beautiful folk art skeletons, skulls and decorations. Sadly, some parts of Mexico are being influenced by Halloween but the traditional Muertos celebration has nothing to do with dressing up in costumes and knocking on doors for candy.
It is believed that on November 1 and 2, the spirits of the deceased come back to visit friends and family. Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos is when family members do their best to entice the spirits of the deceased to come home for a visit by making the spirits feel welcome, by creating ofrendas, (shrines) in their homes decorated with food, drink, photos and remembrances of things they loved while in this life. It is also the time to clean, decorate, and join family members at the gravesite of the loved one.
One of the more common decorations used by families to remember their loved ones on the ofrenda is the catrina and the catrin, which are skeletons fashioned out of clay, wood or paper maché generally wearing a large hat with feather (women) or a top hat (men). These images have evolved from the cartoons by Jose G Posada in the early 1900’s who made fun of the “dandys” who thought they were so fancy they would not die. Other skeletons and skulls used to decorate the ofrenda are generally joyful, representing the deceased loved one doing something that he or she enjoyed in life, such as cooking, riding a bicycle, heading to a picnic, playing music, dancing or going to work. Check out our skeleton, catrina and catrin collection in our Day of the Dead shop online.
Papel picado, or “picked paper” is another common Day of the Dead (and other fiesta) decoration. Traditionally, it is tissue paper that is “chiseled” with a design while in a stack and then strung up in a series of colorful paper flags, meant to mark important days or celebrations. Zinnia Folk Arts has some of this bright and cheerful papel picado available in our shop, which can be used for your own Day of the Dead celebration, or to add color to other festive events.
Día de Muertos is a time when families make both traditional foods and the favorite foods of the deceased, which are used on the home ofrenda and then often brought to the gravesite of their loved one. After sprucing up the gravesite some families, especially in rural Mexico, often hold vigils long into the night while they celebrate, remember, talk and laugh about the life of the person or persons they remember. Other common decorations for grave sites or for home and public ofrendas include sugar skulls, candles, and magenta and gold flowers, especially fragrant marigolds, which are thought to appeal to and entice the visiting spirits to return home.
The holiday reminds me less of Halloween and more of a combination of Thanksgiving (traditional foods, family gathering, memories and reunions) and Memorial Day (visits to the graveyard, cleaning and sprucing up the gravesite, placing flowers and candles). It is one of the most beautiful times in Mexico and I encourage you to visit Mexico during this special time.