Unlike Halloween or All Saints Day, Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, welcomes death, embraces the unknown and laughs at the oddities of life.
Unlike the Anglo-American mind set that death is final and meant to be feared, in Latin America, with Mexico in particular, death is celebrated with a holiday and looked upon just as another step to crossover.
This annual holiday is known as Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Before discussing the holiday’s traditions and current celebrations, here is an attempt to correct any misconceptions.
Dia Historical Misconceptions
Day of the Dead is not Halloween, whose Celtic roots date back 2000 years ago. Dia celebrates the memories and spirits of past ancestors or loved ones who have crossed over where Halloween and its origins tell of bothersome ghosts that return to cause trouble. The Skeleton image in Dia is called a Calavera and represents life in transition and later residing in the Aztec underworld of Mictlan. The Calavera, or Calaca (Skull head), waits for its bones to rest and eventually be reincarnated. In comparison, the Halloween Skeleton often symbolizes evil and treachery and entity to be wary of. Another misconception is that Dia and Halloween are on the same date of celebration.
Dia is celebrated on Nov. 1st and Nov. 2nd. In pre-Colombian times Dia, which originated in Oaxaca, Mexico, was celebrated for nearly 2 months beginning in August. As the Spanish conquest occurred and Native Americans started converting to Catholicism, the holiday was moved to its current day, November 1st, All Saint’s Day, by the church who saw they could not eradicate all old customs.This masking of the indigenous holiday has lead to its growth and popularity; as it is currently celebrated in many Latin American countries and the US as well.
Traditions and Customs
Dia traditions and customs include the building of an altar, the making of Papel Picado (perforated paper) later to be hung as colorful decoration around the altar or cemetery, Pan de Muerto (Pastery bread) to be cooked and even in some cases part of a cemetery celebration. The creation of a home made altar is essential in the celebration. From disjointed wood pieces, crates or stands, the altar is cover with colorful material, flowers, favorite dishes and images of passed loved ones. In Oaxaca gigantic paper mache characters and floats are created and decorated on lakes, dotting parade routes. Cemeteries are decorated with flowers and Mariachi musicians are paid to sing favorite songs of the deceased.
A Modern Celebration
In the US, public celebrations now include live Latino rock concerts where patrons, hosts and musicians wear Calavera (skeleton) face paint. In the US, many public altars are created at Latin cultural centers, with altars created by reknown artists. These modern altars may include additions such as the image or symbol of a recently passed celebrity.