Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), a Mexican celebration, is a day to celebrate, remember and prepare special foods in honor of those who have departed. On this day in Mexico, the streets near the cemeteries are filled with decorations of papel picado , flowers, candy calaveras (skeletons and skulls), and parades.
It is believed that the spirit of the dead visit their families on October 31 and leave on November 2.
In order to celebrate, the families make altars and place ofrendas (offerings) of food such as pan de muertos baked in shapes of skulls and figures, candles, incense, yellow marigolds known as cempazuchitl (also spelled zempasuchil) and most importantly a photo of the departed soul is placed on the altar.
It might sound somewhat morbid, but the Mexicans react to death with mourning along with happiness and joy. They look at death with the same fear as any other culture, but there is a difference. They reflect their fear by mocking and living alongside death.
Living alongside death means that Mexicans have to learned to accept it within their lives. Death is apparent in everyday life. It is in art and even in children's toys. It is not respected as it is in other cultures. Children play "funeral" with toys that are made to represent coffins and undertakers.
Death is laughed at in its face. Many euphemisms are used for death, La calaca (the skeleton), la pelona ("baldy"), la flaca ("skinny"), and la huesada ("bony"). There are refranes, sayings, and poems that are popular with day of the dead. These sayings are cliches and lose meaning when translated. For example "La muerte es flaca y no puede conmigo" means "Death is skinny/weak and she can't carry me." Calaveras (skulls) are decorated with bright colors with the name of the departed inscribed on the head. Children carrying yellow marigolds enjoy the processions to the cemetery. At the cemetery, music is played and dances are made to honor the spirits.
Death is a celebration in Mexico. Death is among them.
MORE ABOUT EL DIA DE LOS MUERTOS
- By Aracely Hernandez. 1998 (updated 2011).
NorthernNotes from Northern Illinois University
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The following writings are short essay/reflections from Universidad Popular’s Learning to Succeed English Tutor group. These individuals have been with Universidad Popular for several years, advancing their knowledge of the English language through all the levels of our Adults English Literacy program. This year, we’ve presented them with the challenge of helping their fellow community learners in their process of learning English. Every Wednesday and Thursday they receive training for tutoring and teaching-learning while at the same time refreshing English skills in an intensive 3-hour advance English learning group.
These essays are their contribution to Universidad Popular’s 2014 Day of the Dead Celebration, which took place last October 29th in our community hall. The multiplicity of perspective and the depth of analysis and research presented here is but a small example of the wonderful minds that walk through our halls everyday and that fill our amazing community.
Our tradition started a long time ago.
An essay by María
In Mexico we celebrate the Day of the Dead on November 2nd. This day is very important for a lot of Mexican Families.
Our tradition started a long time ago. In many of the cultures that composed ancient Mexico such as the Mayas, Olmecas, Mexicas, etc. the dead had a very important place in society. When the Spaniards came to Mexico the tradition of the Day of the Dead already existed, but the Spaniards incorporated the catholic religion into it along with other ideas. Then started the mixing of traditions and now this celebration is different from the old days.
All the things we use for this celebration have different meanings.
The idea of making altars come from people thinking that the dead can come back on this day. Families build the altars in different ways. Some altars are made with 7 levels, or steps. Each step has different items.
Before we start the altar, however, we first need to sweep the area with aromatic herbs. We need to clean in 4 directions: North, south, east, and west.
To make the altars we can use cardboard, or wood to make our 7 levels or steps.
First, we make the last level. It’s bigger than the others. One by one we complete the 7 levels, each smaller that the other. Then, we cover them with a black or white cloth.
- On the first step we put the picture of a religious image or our favorite picture of the dead.
- The second step is only for the souls in purgatory.
- On the third step we put salt for the children in purgatory.
- On the fourth goes the “pan de muerto.” This bread is decorated with red sugar to symbolize blood. Sometimes, the bread is made for the relatives of the dead as a means of consagration.
- The fifth step is for the dead’s favorite food, fruit, and beverages.
- The sixth step is for a picture of the dead.
- And on the seventh we put a cross.
Other offerings are also put on the altars. Often times, 4 candles are used to make a cross.
The elements of the altar are purple and yellow chains made with Chinese paper. This symbolizes the union between life and death. “Papel picado” also means happiness for life. Flowers are used to welcome the soul. white flowers symbolize the earth and purple flowers mean sorrow. The fired up wick of the candle symbolizes the spirit’s ascension and also serves as a guiding light.
The family of the deceased stay awake all night waiting for the spirit to come back and enjoy the food they’ve prepared for them.
Today, this celebration is changing and does not carry with it the same faith than in the old days. Some people don’t understand much about it. Sometimes this celebration seems to be more about competition and making money than about remembering those who are gone. Other traditions are mixed with these days, such as Halloween, and every time more Mexican are preferring to celebrate them instead of the Day of the Dead. But I hope this tradition doesn’t die. I hope that it passes from generation to generation around the world–wherever Mexicans live.
The tradition has changed.
An essay by Mario Flores
In Mexico people celebrate the Day of the Dead in November.
When I was in Mexico, my grandmother celebrated this day in November. She did it to remember her sons. She cooked bread and some food, light candles, and stayed awake until midnight. At midnight, according to tradition, is when dead people return as flies.
People also go to the graves of the dead, light candles and pray on their tombs.
Nowadays that tradition has changed because people like me have immigrated to other countries. For example, when I got married we used to light candles during the first few years and we also went to church. But after a few years, we stopped. in this country not many people celebrate the Day of the Dead. The tradition has changed.
…when I started the English classes at Universidad Popular I saw for the first time the beautiful decorations and traditions
An essay by Tomasa
I do not celebrate the Day of the Dead because in my country no one does.
Now, when I started the English classes at Universidad Popular I saw for the first time the beautiful decorations and traditions they did. The only thing I worried about was that the smoke from the candles in the altars was making me dizzy. My teacher at the time, Annabel, took us to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen where we saw a lot of altars with nice decorations.
I think it’s important to celebrate this tradition because it is a special day to remember our family who have passed away. There is a catholic tradition behind it that begins with the first day of November, celebrating “all saints day,” and the second day of november, celebrating “the day of the dead.”
I feel this tradition has changed because young people have lost interest in our original customs. They are influenced by the traditions of this country–where they were born, or where they grew up.
The Day of the Dead is a holiday to remember and give tribute to people who were a part of this world.
An essay by Minerva Vazquez
We celebrate the Day of the Dead because it’s a Mexican holiday and, of course, we’re Mexican. This tradition comes from our ancestors.
My family used to celebrate this special day to honor our deceased loved ones. We decorated an altar with bright colors, candles, pictures, and a lot of food. We used orange, red, purple, and yellow ornaments. We used candles to illuminate our dead’s way. We put some pictures of persons who had passed away–these could be our relatives or friends. My grandmother cooked different kinds of food. She cooked every meal that was the favorite for each person who had died, but she also prepared sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and mole.
I have been celebrating the Day of the Dead since I came to Chicago, but not exactly like we did in my hometown. I light some candles and pray a rosary. I think by doing this we’re contributing to keeping alive this wonderful Mexican tradition.
This celebration is important because we have the opportunity to remember our loved ones who have died. It is much like “Memorial Day” in the U.S. because both holidays honor people who have passed away. In Memorial Day, the U.S. honors men and women who have died in military service, and in the Day of the Dead we (Mexicans) honor our relatives and friends who have passed away.
Although it is a good time to gather together and show respect for our loved ones, on the other hand we also have a reason to a family party. This is good! Don’t you think?
This celebration comes from the catholic celebration of “All Souls, and all Saints Day on November 1st and 2nd. There are some traditional activities that take place at the cemeteries, for example: cleaning the tombs, then placing a paper flower crown or a vase of wild cempaxuchitl. This holiday is from far away in southern Mexico.
The Day of the Dead is a holiday to remember and give tribute to people who were a part of this world. What about marking your prints in all people’s hearts and when the time comes you will be remembered with bright colors, your favorite food, some wild marigolds, or at least with a fragile light. I personally believe that each of us celebrates the Day of the Dead one way or another.