What is ‘Day of the Dead’ or Dia de los Muertos?

“What is Day of the Dead?” my friends ask when I tell them I am headed to Mazatlán, Mexico, for Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos festivities.

Day of the Dead is perhaps a misnomer since the colorful celebration takes place over two days, on November 1 and 2, rather than on just one day. The name could be also considered misleading by English speakers who typically associate the dead with sadness and maybe even a little macabre fear.

On the contrary, the traditional Mexican festivity is a time to joyously honor relatives and companions who have preceded us in death. The ethereal scent of crushed marigolds fill the air as altars or ofrendas are prepared in homes and businesses and decorated with flowers and photos of those who have died.

Dis de los Muertos ofrenda or altar with pictures of James Brown
Ofrendas are also made for celebrities. James Brown ofrenda by Carmichaellibrary via WikiMedia Commons

Threshold in time

It is believed that this is a threshold in time and space when the dead can visit their families so favorite food and drink, including tequila, mescal and other liquors, are placed on ofrendas to attract souls of the deceased.

Altar with food offerings including apples, Crown Royal whiskey and Day of the Dead bread
Photo by Carmichaellibrary at Wikimedia Commons.

Day of the Dead tradition has roots in Aztec culture

The sacred tradition goes back before the Spanish conquest of Mexico to the time of the Aztecs and other indigenous people who held month-long festivals to honor the dead. The Aztecs celebrated during the ninth month of their calendar (August in our calendar). After the Spanish arrived, the Aztec festival was synchronized with the Catholic holy days of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. Day of the Dead has been morphing ever since into a truly Mexican experience. It must be remembered that traditions are distinctive in different towns and continue to change to reflect the local culture.

Prehistoric Aztec glyph of Aztec Queen Mictlancihuatl
Aztec Queen Mictlancihuatl, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mictecacíhuatl the “Lady of the Dead” of Aztec mythology watched over the bones of the dead and presided over festivals honoring the deceased, according to An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. Today La Catrina, a well-dressed female skeleton has become the symbolic hostess of Day of the Dead. Besides La Catrina, calaveras or skulls have also become icons of the fest. Skull motifs are seen on altars, costumes, special foods and even on tequila labels.

Life Continues Through Memories of Others

During the day, families get together in cemeteries to clean headstones, fondly remember grandmothers and grandfathers and pray for them. The living bring picnics of food and drink and maybe even hire a band to play for this life-affirming celebration.

In many towns, people gather in the evening for a callejoneada or alleyway stroll. Live music and people with painted faces, dressed as La Catrina dancing in the streets lend a Carnivalesque vibe to the promenade. I am looking forward to learning more as I travel to Mazatlán to partake in the celebration and explore the liminal space. Read more at www.visitmexico.com

Note: Common to the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.

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