Towards the end of the year, Mexicans flock in large numbers to congregate in cemeteries and gravesites all over the country. Rather than a harrowing tragedy, it is a nationwide celebration called Dia de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead, and a part of hispanic culture and tradition in the United States as well.
If you look closely at your own customs around death, you may discover striking parallels that contain many of the same elements that Mexicans believe. But what does Día de los Muertos mean? Is it similar to Halloween? And how exactly is it celebrated in the United States? Let’s try to cover these (and some other) questions here.
When is Día de Los Muertos celebrated?
The eve of Día de los Muertos begins on October 31st—a date that much of the secular sphere associates with Halloween—and extends up to November 1st and 2nd, when Catholics around the world observe All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
Why would anyone celebrate death?
In a country that is very much acquainted with the realities of life, death is just another part of the cycle that confronts us who walk on this mortal realm. Instead of shying away from it, Mexicans have decided throughout the course of their shared history to confront it, and Día de los Muertos has come about as a natural result of this cultural introspection.
To the untrained eye, it’s easy to mistake Día de los Muertos as a copycat of many existing traditions, but it has actually taken on a unique twist of its own that separates it from every other event in the planet, so much so that it has been designated as one of the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Three of these Mexican peculiarities include:
- No sadness allowed – unlike the more solemn observances of Christians, Dia de los Muertos involves feasting, partying, and storytelling. The practitioners are not so much memorializing the deceased as they are invoking them to awaken from their slumber! Obviously, this does not mean that graves will be upturned and bodies resurrected in the physical sense, but rather the spirits of the dead are rumored to leave their spiritual realm and allowed to visit their loved ones only during this particular timeframe. The celebration is therefore considered the best family reunion of sorts, with living members here on earth and dead members in the afterlife gathering once again in solidarity with each other. To that end, it is common to see celebrations on the streets where people are dressed up as skeletons and wear special Día de Los Muertos makeup for the occasion.
- Time to wake the dead – it’s often been said that the best way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, but Día de los Muertos is taking things to the next level. To help rouse the spirits and assist them in reaching the plane of the living, festival goers will often work on remarkable Día de los Muertos decorations, creating altars dedicated to the deceased and filling them with all kinds of sentimental trinkets, especially their favorite foods. The scents are rumored to attract the ghost, invoking memories of his or her past, and hopefully encourage a visit so he or she can chow down once more. In other cases, younger participants will even perform a ritual dance while wearing shell-covered necklaces, hoping that the noisy rattling will wake the dead.
- A night at the cemetery – graves are often cleaned and prepared prior to the festival so that on the arrival of the Day of the Dead, family members can congregate around the burial site. This union reinforces kinship ties—the whole affair is spent with plenty of food, drinks, and stories to go around. One of the predominant beliefs is that the dead can hear what is being said, even though they may not be visible to the naked eye. Therefore, relatives will trade humorous memories about their loved ones who’ve passed away, contributing to the overall bliss of the situation. This helps ease pains of loss and ensures that their legacy lives on, if not here on earth, then at least in the thoughts of those whom they have left behind.
Intermingling with the nations
Because Mexico is a country that contains a wide mixture of cultures and customs, it’s inevitable that foreign influence will eventually shape the way Dia de los Muertos is celebrated. For instance, the nation’s proximity with the United States has resulted in Halloween penetrating the country’s climate, resulting in kids in large cities taking on a westernized “trick-or-treat” approach to this age-old practice. Similarly, a lot of Mexicans are Catholics, which means that, in addition to celebrating the traditional Day of the Dead, they also incorporate many Christian practices such as praying for souls’ eternal repose and setting up shrines and altars containing images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
How do Mexicans celebrate Dia de los Muertos outside of Mexico?
Mexicans living outside of Mexico, especially those in the United States, can still celebrate the holiday and partake in local festivities despite not being physically present with their families and loved ones. For example, San Francisco’s Mission District holds a Day of the Dead parade every year, complete with skeleton-costumed attendees. Likewise, San Antonio’s Muerto Fest is an extravagant event that features live music, food, parades, performances, and other Americanisms mixed in with the Mexican roots. Nevertheless, despite trying hard to capture the essence of their native soil, Mexican expats still wish to be transported back to Mexico and share the joy with their relatives – both dead and alive.
Dia de los Muertos is one of the times every year when Latinos working abroad send money to their families in order to pay for the expenses of the festival. Ria is honored to help make that possible and will continue to serve those assisting with the needs of the living by making sure that they get their daily sustenance, and carry on the legacy of their deceased.
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