Following hot on the heels of Halloween and All Soul’s Day, the Day of the Dead is the third and final of the trio of fall festivals dedicated to remembering those who came before. All three days have their roots in the religious beliefs of various cultures, though aspects of each holiday are more widely followed in some countries than others.
For instance, Halloween, or “All Hallows Eve,” is primarily observed in the United States and Canada, while the Day of the Dead is a massive celebration in Mexico.
The Día de los Muertos
Known in Spanish as the Día de los Muertos, the holiday traces its origins back to well before the Spanish colonizers who arrived in the region in the 1500s. Thousands of years before Europeans arrived in America, the indigenous people of Mexico practiced rituals celebrating the lives of those who had gone before them.
The current celebration evolved from an Aztec festival that fell during the ninth month of their calendar.
When the Spanish began colonizing the region, often at the threat of violence to the natives, the intermingling of ancient rituals and new religion led to a synthesis of traditions. Over time, the month-long Aztec festivals was condensed into three days in the middle of Autumn.
These three holidays each have importance in the culture of those who observe them, though the Day of the Dead tends to see the biggest and most visible celebrations.
The holiday has several recognizable symbols and characters associated with it. One is La Catrina, a towering skeletal woman who is depicted with bright face paint and an elegant, feathered hat. Another recognizable symbol is that of the lit candle, burned in remembrance of ancestors.
The holiday is often associated with images of skulls painted with vibrant, joyful paints.
The message is that there is no reason to despair in death, but to instead celebrate the lives and vitality of those who have gone before you. The celebrations for the holiday are notable jubilant and raucous, not out of a crass ignorance of the seriousness of death, but out of a love and respect for the ancestors the day commemorates.
If you would like to participate in the holiday, you can observe the tradition by setting up a small table in your home with a picture of a departed loved one. Decorate the table with flowers and light a candle as an act of remembrance, and reflect on your ancestor’s life and your memories of them.
You could also stop by a local cemetery and spend some time contemplating the beauty of the cycle of life.