The Day of the Dead – Diá de Muertos – A Celebration of Life

By Dawn X. Spectre for xpatradio.mx

Celebrated throughout the Catholic world as All Souls and All Saints Day on November 1st and 2nd respectively, it is believed that at midnight on October 31 the spirits of deceased children, called angelitos, will reunite with their families for the day. On November 2, the spirits of deceased adults come to this world for their parties, enticed by the ofrendas prepared in their honor. Special masses and gravesite maintenance are part of the Catholic observance. However, it is only in Central and Southern Mexico, and to a certain extent in Brazil, Spain, and the US where there are large Mexican populations, that it becomes an elaborate party in public town squares and cemeteries; with public and private ofrendas or altars honoring those who have passed on. There are public altar competitions and calavera competitions throughout Mexico.


Day of the Dead is more than just remembering. It is a lively party which allows the living a chance to reconnect with those who have passed on. It is believed the dead return to life once a year to visit and celebrate with loved ones; with the underlying knowledge that someday all will be together in the world where spirits reside. The celebration can be at the cemetery, where families and friends gather to tell ancestral stories, sing songs, and decorate the gravesite with flowers, photographs, beverages and food in honor of the dead. When possible, the home altar is moved to the cemetery on November 2.

Since it is one’s departed loved ones who seemingly return to this world to celebrate with those still alive; it behooves the Mexican altar or ofrenda creator to do a marvelous job, honoring the deceased. Indeed some beliefs suggest that if the altar is not done well, the deceased will be saddened and bad things can happen.

The altar can be for any person, and even pets as well. Many people honor their favourite celebrities, artists and other influential people who have passed on.

Altars celebrate not how the person died, but how they lived. Accordingly, there are key elements that are usually included. They start with a white or colorful tablecloth decorated with tissue paper garlands made for the Day of the Dead. Then they are decorated with sugar skulls, candles, flowers, incense and buckets of wild marigolds called cempasuchil. Marigolds guide the spirits to their altars using their vibrant colors and scent. Marigolds, and flowers in general, also represent the fragility of life. The sugar skulls date back to the colonial period of the 18th century; as sugar was abundant and an economical way to create religious decorations. The sugar skulls wear smiles and glitter and represent the departed soul, with the name of the person honored written on the forehead which is meant to entice their spirit home.

To these basic symbolic items, fruit, water, candy and the favorite food and beverage of the deceased, is added to the altar. Musical instruments, favorite books, photographs and other personal mementos are added to further personalize the ofrenda.

Other rituals include the calevera poem, the calacas (skeletons), pan de muerto and La Catrina. Pan de muerto is an egg-bread made in various shapes from plain rounds with a teardrop baked on top, representing the living’s sorrow, to skulls and rabbits, often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bone.

Poets, journalists, and writers of all kinds write short memorial poems called calaveras. They are epitaphs of friends, family or famous people, describing their unique habits and attitudes and often including amusing anecdotes. Calaveras are said to have been started by a newspaper which published a memorial poem for people who were still living. Mexican newspapers still dedicate calaveras to public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of the famous calacas of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator.

Posada’s calacas, that is, skeletons based on the Aztec Lady of the Dead but dressed in elaborate costumes, were integral to the Mexican Revolution. These provided visual representation of the critical voice promoting change and now continue as an iconic form of Mexican expression. The skeleton, La Catrina, famous for her large, elegant hat was created by Posada as a visual symbol of the Mexicans who were adapting French and European aristocratic ways, while denying their indigenous heritage.

Today, the Day of the Dead skeletons are ever-present to remind people that one day they too will be skeletons. But not today…so celebrate!

Day of the Dead customs in Mexico vary from town to town, but are widely present in most town squares. If you want to know where some popular Day of the Dead events are being held in BCS, please check the xpatradio.mx calendar.


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