November 1st is for many a holiday that rivals Halloween in its power and personal meaning. Día de Los Muertos is Mexican holiday celebrated on November 1st through November 2nd. Día de Los Muertos is a time to commemorate death. Although it is often compared to Halloween there is nothing scary about Día de Los Muertos. In fact, it is a celebration that is imbued with love and remembrance of those that have gone.
According to the National Hispanic Center, “Essential to Día de Los Muertos rituals and practices is the pre-Columbian belief in the universal duality of life; birth and death, light and dark, joy and pain are critical and necessary partners in the cycle our existence.” The basic premise of Día de Los Muertos is the belief that at midnight on October 31st the souls of the dead are able to reunite with their loved ones. Those who died in childhood are said to come on November 1st whereas adults come down November 2nd.
To celebrate their homecoming families construct colorful, merry altars in their homes. These altars are usually decorated with flowers, candles, their loved one’s favorite food, pictures of the deceased, the deceased’s favorite things, and pan de muerto. Pan de muerto is a sweet bread that is made specifically to celebrate Día de Los Muertos.
But, Día de Los Muertos is not just celebrated in the home. In fact, loved ones travel to cemeteries to picnic, play music, clean off the gravestones, dance, and sing to the departed. Some even will spend the night in the graveyard.
You may be wondering how Día de Los Muertos most unique and identifiable symbol, the Sugar Skull, came to be. They are called ‘Calavera Catrina’ now but before there were sugar skulls, there were Literary Calaveras. Calavera does mean skull but in the 18th and 19th century the most popular way to celebrate the dead on Día de Los Muertos was to write short, silly poems that sarcastically poked fun at the living.
This began to shift in the early 20th century thanks to Mexican political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada. He created a design to go along with literary Calavera. In this design, he personified death as a feminine skeleton dressed decadently in French clothing. According to National Geographic, he meant it to act as “social commentary on Mexican society’s emulation of European sophistication. “Todos Somos Calaveras,” a quote commonly attributed to Posada, means “we are all skeletons.” Underneath all our man-made trappings, we are all the same.”
In 1947 artist Diego Rivera featured this fancy French skeleton in his famous painting, ‘Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.’ He named her Catrina and ever since her colorful and extravagantly decorated skull has been made in sugar form.
In addition to celebrating at cemeteries, with home altars, and by sharing sugar skulls Día de LosMuertos also involves a larger celebration. Oftentimes, people dress up as skeletons, pain their face to mimic Calavera Catrina, and wear fancy clothes and costumes.
Today Día de Los Muertos is more popular than ever...but don’t confuse it for Halloween!
This image is from the Thacher Gallery. “Day of the Dead: Altar Building with Chisme y Comida.” Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)