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Origin of Día de los Muertos

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

By Martha V.

Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican celebration commemorated on November 1st. and 2nd. The first day is for dead children and the second for dead adults.

Día de los Muertos has its origin in pre-Hispanic times (before the European colonization). At that time, many Mesoamerican ethnicities worshiped Death. They believed that gods decided the destiny of the souls, which had to encounter a number of obstacles to be able to reach everlasting rest. In order for the souls to initiate their journey, family members were in charge of keeping company with them (at a distance) through rritual. Once a person died, death was announced by the screaming and crying of older women of the community. After that, the body was shrouded along with some of the dead’s personal belongings. Then the body was symbolically fed with the most exquisite food on offer.

After four days the body was buried or cremated. At that moment the soul abandoned the body and began its difficult journey. Family members continued the rituals every year for four years with ostentatious ceremonies at the spot where the remains of the body were kept. This complex ritual not only helped the souls to find eternal rest but also made the grieving process easier for family members.

The offerings for the Day of the Dead are placed in shines, which have pre-Hispanic origin. The offerings were dedicated to diverse gods and were set on different dates; however the god of death Mictlantecuhtli, was celebrated in the month that is now known as November. This coincidence was used by evangelists during Colonial times to make religious appropriations of native rituals and synchronization between Christian and native beliefs.

With the arrival of the European population, this ritual was transformed. The ritual of the underworld god was appropriated and mixed in with the rituals for the deceased from the Catholic Church and evolved into what it is today.

Offerings to the Dead (Shrines to the Dead)

Each family erects a shrine for their dead, usually in their home. Originally the shrines were set up a couple of days before November 1st (October 30th and 31st) and stayed on display until the 3rd of November. According to tradition, during those dates all the souls came back to visit their relatives.

Elements of the Shrines

  • Pictures of the deceased: It is very common to put pictures of family members who are no longer with us.

  • Copal incense: The smoke that it releases is the olfactory guide for our dead to come and visit us.

  • Candles: These represent fire and light. As the incense, candles work to guide the souls to find their way to us.

  • Water and favorite drinks.

  • Marigold flower: This flower with its fluffy appearance is known as the “Flower of 20 petals”. It is used for decoration and to create paths to guide the spirits of our deceased.

  • Skulls: In the past real skulls were used. Later skulls made with sugar, amaranth and chocolate were substituted. Each skull represents one deceased.

  • Bread of the Dead: Represents the skeleton of the dead people.

Current Traditions for Dia de los Muertos

Mexico is a large country with complex orography and diverse ethnic groups. Every region has its own traditions, foods, accents, and expressions. However, in general terms Dia de los Muertos is a cultural and religious celebration. Artists make skulls and shrines for public exhibitions, there are parades in the streets and people wear colorful skeleton customs, they dance with joyful music, these parades are reminiscent of the pre-Colombian rituals.

Many families visit the tombs of their dead relatives. During the afternoon, they go to the cemetery to remove weeds and clean the tombs. Then they place complex floral arrangements around the graves. At sunset, candles and copal incense are lit. Around the cemetery, vendors set up stalls to sell food, snacks, and churros; the bread of the dead (pan de muerto) is a must.

Families stay at their loved ones’ graves from sunset to sunrise praying, having a family dinner on the tomb and even singing, by themselves or with mariachis, thought to be the favorite music of the dead. The only light is from the candles. If you’re interested, the Disney movie Coco has factual references to El dia de los Muertos.

This Mexican celebration reminds us of the limits of our lives; however, it teaches us that death is part of life and we must celebrate it.

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