What is the Day of the Dead?

If you’re a movie buff like me, when you think about what is Day of the Dead, you might think of the cult classic 1985 George A. Romero movie. Actually, you wouldn’t technically be wrong, but we’re not talking about that movie today. Today we want to learn all about the 2-day celebration of life and death observed mainly in Mexico and also in many countries worldwide just after Halloween, usually on November 1st – 2nd. During this time, families prepare offerings for friends and family members who have passed. These offerings (ofrendas) are supposed to encourage visitors from the land of the dead to come back and join us in prayer, favorite meals, and celebration.

Day of the Dead is a rare type of holiday where we recognize the dead through celebration rather than mourning. Let’s examine some of the important aspects of this amazing tradition.

When is the Day of the Dead?

As mentioned above, Dia De Los Muertos is a 2-day celebration comprised of 3 focus points – children, adults, and the deceased. The 2 days designated for the holiday sometimes vary each year, but they typically fall on or around the first week of November or the last week of October. Celebrations and offerings do vary a bit between each focus, as described below, with the dates and times for 2022.

November 1st, 12 am

Spirits of the Children

It is believed starting at midnight on Nov 1st the spirits of deceased children are reunited with their parents for 24 hours. This Day of the Little Angels (Dia de Los Angelitos) is meant to offer the children toys, snacks, photos, and other memories to encourage a visit.

November 2nd, 12 am

Spirits of the Adults

The celebration shifts to remember adults at midnight the following day. This night sees the offerings comprised more of drinks and finer foods. Families will play games, dance, and enjoy music from the village band while celebrating loved ones both past and present.

November 2nd, Noon

Spirits of the Dead

On the final Day of the Dead, there are public celebrations in which people often wear masks or painted faces while they participate in parades and other grande spectacles. Families will frequently visit cemeteries to clean up and restore gravestones and to pay their final respects to the dead.

Common Ways People Celebrate the Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead is a holiday to remember loved ones by sharing a meal with them as one would when they were alive.

  • Calaveras (Skulls) – Sometimes referred to as Sugar Skulls, these decorations are both worn and displayed, sometimes with the names of lost loved ones adorning the surface. Most skulls are meant to present a humorous or fun sentiment toward death itself. Some skulls are face painted, while others, specifically the Calaveras, are made from either sugar or clay and are frequently placed with the ofrendas.
Day of the Dead Calaveras
Colorful hand-painted skulls are sold on the market during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City, Mexico. Skulls, skeletons, and other death symbols are used to adorn graves, altars, and offerings during the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos). A syncretic religious holiday, combining the death veneration rituals of the ancient Aztec culture with the Catholic practice, is celebrated throughout all of Mexico. Based on the belief that the souls of the departed may come back to this world on that day, people gather at the gravesites in cemeteries, praying, drinking, and playing music, to joyfully remember friends or family members who have died and to support their souls on the spiritual journey.
  • Ofrendas (Offerings) – Mexican families combine photos, candles, food & drink, and other items to remember their passed loved ones on altars, generally in their homes and sometimes in public. These offerings differ depending on the intended audience – children, adults, or the deceased – and are a primary focus of the Day of the Dead in both celebration and remembrance.
Day of the Dead gravesite ofrendas
  • Day of the Dead Flower – Marigolds are commonly used during the Day of the Death on altars and on gravesites, and there are frequently marigold parades on the second day in larger towns. You would see marigolds adorning a variety of public and private spaces such as parks, stores, and government buildings. Sometimes the petals are arranged as pathways for the deal to find and rejoin their families. No matter how they are used, these flowers are colorful and sweet smelling, adding a warm glow to any atmosphere.
Day of the Dead marigolds
  • Food & Drink – Mexican tradition is known to be rooted in food & drink. Day of the Dead is a celebration and thus is a time to consume all manner of historic Mexican recipes. Traditional Mexican drinks such as tequila, pulque, and mezcal are popular choices during this time as well, both if offerings and for folks who are celebrating. Popular foods include sweet bread (of the dead) and soups such as Pozole and Aztec Soup.
  • Papel Picado – This is a style of flag used during the Day of the Dead that tends to be bright and colorful. These flags are made from fine colored paper containing images associated with the Day of the Dead including skeletons depicted in celebration and popular holiday foods.
Day of the Dead Papel Picados
  • Alebrijes – You will see these creatures amongst celebrations in larger cities such as Mexico City. Alebrijes are large, colorful creatures comprised of the feature of many different animals like lizards, deer, and insects. These creatures are said to live in our dreams and in the land of the dead.
Day of the Dead Alebrijes

Final Words (of the Dead)

As a whole, the Day of the Dead celebration is a great way to maintain a healthy relationship with both life and death. This is a time for celebrating being alive and for fondly recalling those important people who have passed on. Death is just a part of life and by celebrating rather than mourning, we are able to put a positive spin on something that is usually considered scary and macabre. Day of the Dead should never be confused with Halloween, and to celebrate both simultaneously would be a ‘grave’ error in misunderstanding traditions. Hopefully, this, and similar articles can help to clear up the confusion and position death in a different, more celebratory light.

About Alex J

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