Día de los Muertos help us celebrate our loved ones who are no longer with us.
Día de Los Muertos. It’s a colorful and vibrant holiday that celebrates life, makes us pause for a moment to reminisce about those we love who are no longer with us, and gives us an opportunity to reunite with them if only for a short time.
Growing up, my family didn’t necessarily follow any Mexican customs (I am half Mexican and half German by the way), so I didn’t have the chance to celebrate or participate in Mexican cultural traditions or festivities like Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It wasn’t until I got to high school and took some Spanish classes that I became more aware of my heritage. One year, my Spanish teacher taught us about Día de los Muertos and I was instantly intrigued by the colors, decorations, festivities, and symbolism. I loved how it was a holiday that didn’t focus on the spooky and scary stuff, but rather focused on celebrating the life your loved ones lived and still allowed you to be close to them even if they’re not here anymore.
After watching the documentary my teacher showed us about Día de Los Muertos in class, I took it upon myself to learn more about this important cultural tradition that was a part of my heritage. Since then, I have celebrated Dia de los Muertos every year, honoring all of my loved ones that I have lost: My Grandpa Henry, my Auntie Hank, and my fur babies, Daisy and Missy.
What is Día de los Muertos?
Originating in Mexico, Día de los Muertos is celebrated annually on October 31, November 1, and November 2 to honor those who have died with lots of colorful calaveras, or skulls, and calacas, or skeletons.
One thing that you might normally hear people say is that Día de los Muertos is a Mexican version of Halloween, but it’s not. Though the two holidays are related, they actually differ greatly in traditions and tone. Halloween is typically seen as a dark and spooky night of terror, but Día de los Muertos is celebration of life that is bursting with explosions of color. Yes, both holidays revolve around the theme of death, but Día de los Muertos is all about demonstrating love and respect for family members that have passed away. It’s a happy celebration meant to honor our dearly departed loved ones and to appreciate life while we are still part of the living.
It is during Día de los Muertos when families welcome back the souls of deceased relatives for a brief reunion.
For those that celebrate Día de los Muertos, it is traditional to don elaborate and colorful makeup and costumes, celebrate with parades and parties, and make offerings to lost loved ones.
The centerpiece of this special occasion would have to be the ofrendas, or altars, that families build for their loved ones. This can be done in the privacy of their own home or at the burial site of their ancestors (celebrations are held in the cemeteries where the mood is jovial and people cheerfully commemorate their lost loved ones). These altars are not meant for worship, but rather are for commemorating and welcoming back their loved ones to the land of the living. Traveling from the spirit world back to the land of the living can be a tiring journey for ancestors (at least that’s the traditional belief in Mexico), so it is customary to offer your loved ones food and drink on the ofrenda, particularly their favorite meal. Other typical offerings might include treats like pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, and sugar skulls.
On the altar, you will also find family photos (whether of a family member or even a beloved pet), material objects that used to belong to the ancestors, candles, and marigolds, which are the traditional flowers of the dead, or flor de muerto. Marigolds are usually scattered from the gravesite to the altar as they help wandering souls to find their way. One of my personal favorite decorations that you will also find is papel picado, which is a beautiful papercraft banner made from colorful tissue paper. It’s typically placed around altars and in the streets, and the art represents the fragility of life.
How Do I Celebrate Día de Los Muertos?
Since Día de Los Muertos is a time when we can celebrate the lives of our loved ones who have passed and reunite with them for a brief moment, the holiday holds a special place in my heart. Sadly, I have lost a few very dear family members starting at a young age, so I celebrate this holiday for them and the incredible people, and pets, they were.
I celebrate Día de Los Muertos by building the traditional ofrenda, or altar. On the left side of my ofrenda, I have my two fur babies, Missy (top) and Daisy (bottom). I display their collars that belonged to them alongside their photographs, as well as two skeleton dogs to represent them both. On the right side of my ofrenda, I have my Grandpa Henry and Auntie Hank. I have trinkets that used to belong to them or that they gave to me laid out beside their photos. I also include other items, such as a cross and a chalice to represent how my grandpa and aunt were good people who were always giving and lived life with a “glass-half-full” mentality. While I traditionally will include candles (mostly battery operated) for them, this year I put a strand of colorful lanterns. In addition, I included marigolds, which as I previously explained is the flor de muerto and helps guide their spirits back home. I couldn’t forget the papel picado, which I hung above my ofrenda.
Aside from the altar, I decorate my home with an abundance of colorful calaveras, or skulls, and calacas, or skeletons. You will also find the traditional skeleton couple, Catrin and Catrina. A tall female skeleton typically shown wearing a fancy hat with feathers, La Catrina is one of the most recognizable symbols of Día de Los Muertos celebrations. Her story goes deep into the root of Mexican culture but has been restyled in the last century. It is believed that the Aztecs worshipped a goddess of death who protected their departed loved ones, helping them into the next stage of life (which is why honoring and celebrating the dead is deeply entrenched in Mexican culture). The skeleton woman we have come to know today was created in the early 1900s by artist José Guadalupe Posada, a controversial and political cartoonist. Originally drawn in a satirical way to remind people that they would all die in the end, it is said that Posada drew the elaborately dressed female skeleton with a fancy feathered hat because some Mexicans aspired to look wealthy and aristocratic like the Europeans at that time. It was a message that no matter how rich or poor you were, the color of your skin, or what society you belonged to, everyone ends up as a skeleton. Thus, I include La Catrina in my decorating to remind myself that the end of life is inevitable, so take it good-humoredly and celebrate the life and memories we create with loved ones while they are here.
I always ensure that all of my decorations are bursting with color as some colors are significant to Día de Los Muertos. For example, yellow and orange symbolize light and the sun, respectively; that is why marigolds, which come in shades of yellow and orange, are used to “light” the way for departed family members towards their altars. The color white signifies purity and hope; red signifies the blood of life; and pink represents the joyous qualities of Día de Los Muertos and celebrates the belief that family members will one day reunite with their departed loved ones.
Lastly, one thing that I also really enjoy about Día de Los Muertos is the traditional music, which is why I like to add statues and decorations featuring some of the calacas playing musical instruments.
Why Do I Celebrate Día de Los Muertos?
I celebrate Día de Los Muertos for my loved ones. I lost my Auntie Hank when I was in third grade; my Grandpa Henry my freshman year of high school; my dog, Daisy, my junior year of high school; and my dog, Missy, my senior year of college. Because I lost some of my most cherished family members who were closest to me and who I loved with all of my heart, I celebrate Día de Los Muertos to keep their memory alive. I keep talking about them. I share stories about them. To me, as long as I keep their memory alive, they remain alive. And I take some comfort in knowing that if only for one night, I get to be reunited with my family.
The beauty of Día de Los Muertos is the celebration of life, family, and love. It is a deeply personal and significant occasion during where we rejoice in the belief that death is a natural part of life and that our relatives who have died are never truly gone.
Though this celebration may have originated in Mexico, if you have ever lost someone, I encourage you to learn more about and incorporate some of these traditions to remember your loved one.