What is Día de los Muertos?

What is Día de los Muertos?

You may well have heard of Day of the dead or even have celebrated it. It has gained a lot of recognition in the UK lately (which I absolutely adore as I looove this amazing tradition). But do you know why Mexicans actually celebrate it? Where does it come from? How do we celebrate it?

In Mexico you can breathe Día de los Muertos! You can smell the beautiful fragrance of the cempasuchil flowers in the markets, you can savour the pan de muerto that every single bakery shop will be baking! You will see the cemeteries come to life with all the decorations and the presence of their close friends and family members on their graves. It is a wonderful way to celebrate through art, food and music, the lives and the memories of our loved ones who are now gone. Día de los muertos is undoubtedly the most fascinating Mexican holiday and that’s why I want to share it with you. 

It is mainly celebrated on the first two days of November, however it wasn’t always like this. Hundreds of years ago, the Aztecs used to hold a festival dedicated to Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl- god and goddess of the dead and Mictlan (the underworld). This celebration used to take place on the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar, which nowadays would be near the beginning of August, and was celebrated for a full month.

The Aztecs had this super cool idea that there were different planes of existence, which were separate but interconnected to the one on which we exist. They believed the world had 13 layers of heavens above the earthly terrain and 9 underworlds beneath. Each level was different and held different types of souls depending on how that person had lived and died. For example, a warrior and victims of sacrifice would hold a place in the highest plane in the afterlife.

It was after the 'conquista' in the 16th century, that the Spanish introduced Catholicism in Mexico that this celebration was moved to the 1st and 2nd of November, to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. On November 1st we receive the souls of children that have passed away. This is why it’s also referred as Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Ángelitos (Day of the Little Angels). On November 2nd we welcome the souls of all adults that have died. Regardless of religious connotations, Día de los muertos is more of a cultural holiday that still retains pre-hispanic elements.

Because of its importance as a defining aspect of Mexican culture, and the unique aspects of the celebration which have been passed down through generations, Mexico's indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead was recognised by UNESCO as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2008.

But how do we celebrate it? We put up altars honouring our loved ones who have passed away. These are called “ofrendas” (offering). Ofrendas are placed on a table or shelf with several layers that represent the strata of existence. The most common ofrenda has two layers which represents the earth and the heaven.

A perfect ofrenda should have:

  • Pictures of our loved ones who have passed away.
  • Cempasuchil flowers which will guide the souls into this world
  • Candles to light up their path
  • Copal which will purify the energies.
  • Papel picado which represents happiness.
  • Water to quench their thirst after all that long journey to earth!
  • Food and drinks that our loved ones used to enjoy in life (particularly a sweetened soft bread called Pan de muerto)
  • Sugar skulls, also known as 'calaveras'. The reason these are essential part of an ofrenda is because in the pre-hispanic era, it was common practice to preserve the skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals that symbolised death and rebirth. Obviously these days we do not use real skulls! They are made out of candy, chocolate and amaranth.

The metaphor of life itself is told on an ofrenda, and death is understood as a constant rebirth, as an infinite process that makes us understand that the ones offering today will be invited to the party tomorrow.

Dani Chirinos
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