Día de los Muertos is a 2 day holiday that originates in the Mexican-Catholic culture. The celebration takes place on November 1st, All Saints’ Day and 2nd, All Souls Day. All Saints’ Day celebrates all the Catholic saints, known and unknown while All Soul’s Day commemorates the faithfully departed.
The origins of the modern Mexican holiday trace back hundreds of years to an indigenous Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl who was the Queen of the Underworld and kept watch over the bones of the dead. Rituals to celebrate the deaths of ancestors can be traced back as long as 2,500-3,000 years. Skulls have been kept as trophies and displayed during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth as early as the pre-Hispanic era in Mexico.
In many traditional regions of Mexico, November 1st is Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Angels) where children and infants who have died are celebrated. November 2nd is Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is for adults.
Family members visit cemeteries where their loved ones rest to be close to the souls of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. In order to help entice the souls to come and visit, the altars built around the graves contain their favorite foods and drinks, sugar skulls, small toys for children, photos, and other important memorabilia. Anecdotes and funny stories are shared about the person to help remember the good memories. Orange Mexican marigold called cempasúchitl, sometimes called the Flor de Muerto (Flower of the Dead) are placed on the graves and thought to also help attract souls of the dead to the offerings.
Calaveras (skulls) are short poems that make fun of epitaphs and make light of the funny things that the departed did in life. Calaveras originated in the 18th or 19th Century when newspapers began to publish satirical poems about deceased famous figures. José Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican cartoonist who made a famous calavera titled, Calavera de la Catrina (Calavera of the female dandy) where he mocked the symbolic “death” of the upper-class.
Today, in the bigger cities of Mexico, children in costumes roam the streets, knocking on people’s doors for a calaverita, a small gift of candies or money. This custom is like that of Halloween’s trick-or-treating and is relatively recent. Although this modification of the holiday is a symbol of the changing times, hopefully this wonderful tradition of Día de los Muertos will never be lost.