There’s something about this time of year. The trees change colors, the air gets crisper and we are reminded, with a shiver, that winter is just around the corner. Maybe there is something in the darkening days or the brittle leaves on the ground that give us pause, that cause us to feel more connected to those who have passed on. Halloween touches on the subject, with the tradition of masks to scare off evil spirits and carved pumpkins to do the same. There are other, lesser-known holidays that take a different view, celebrating life and welcoming the spirits of the dead. One such holiday is Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which celebrates with music, flowers, food and color. To do our part in honoring this wonderful holiday, here are five curious facts and traditions you may not have known.
Its origins pre-date Halloween by about a thousand years. A common misconception about the Day of the Dead is it has anything to do with Halloween. Granted, both holidays come within days of each other but that is where many of the similarities end. Halloween has its origins in the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain — in what is now Ireland — dating back to 2000 years ago. This season has such a strong connection to death and what many might call the spirit realm that, halfway across the world and nearly 1000 years earlier, the Aztecs began to honor their own dead at the same time of year. Many rituals and the celebratory nature of the Aztec religion have been preserved today, during the Day of the Dead.
2. All about life
It’s meant to be a celebration of life, not death. While many people in the United States have been raised to see death and the need to bury loved ones as somber occasions, Mexico’s Day of the Dead provides an opportunity to reconnect with those who have passed on. It is meant as a celebration of life, both for those who are still alive and in memory of the deceased. The entire nation celebrates with street festivals, music, dancing and vibrant decorations. Families prepare the favorite foods of their deceased relatives, then gather in their local cemeteries to talk to the spirits of these loved ones. A traditional belief common amongst many Mexicans is that the Day of the Dead is the day when the barrier between the land of the living and that of the dead is thin enough to allow spirits from the other side to return. It is a joyous day, as many family members, both alive and dead, are reunited for one night.
3. Full of flowers
It has more than that, but flowers are a nice touch. Part of the traditional celebration each year consists of preparing ofrendas, or festive altars, dedicated to those family members who are deceased. However, these alters aren’t anything scary or creepy. They are usually decorated with photos or pictures of the family member being honored, paper streamers, some favorite foods or beverages for strength for the journey back from the spirit world and flowers, of course. A favorite flower, known for its rich color and powerful fragrance, is the cempasuchil, a cousin of the marigold more common to the States. These flowers only bloom in the autumn months and it is believed that the fragrance of their vibrant petals helps guide the spirits of dead family members back home.
4. Traditional foods
It is all about food, actually. During the celebration of the Day of the Dead, family members use food to entice and encourage the spirits of their deceased relatives to find their way home. They set food out on the ofrendas, they bring it to the cemetery and they share it amongst other family members, all to remind the dead of how great food is. It is common to find a sweet, cake-like dessert, covered in sugar and baked to look like a pile of bones. They call it Pan de Muerto, which is “dead bread” in English, and it has been a traditional dessert for as long as anyone can remember. Of course, we can’t forget the sugar skull. While there are many different types of treats shaped like skulls that come out during this time of year, many artists and sculptors take the sugar skull to a new height, creating elaborate sculptures of skeletons out of a sugar-based paste.
5. Butterflies abound
It isn’t all that surprising, with everything else we have read today. Understanding, as we do now, more about the migratory patterns of many birds and insects, we can see how the traditions of the Day of the Dead would associate the arrival of millions of monarch butterflies with the arrival of the spirits of the dead. That is exactly what kept happening. Each year, for centuries, the migration of these amazing butterflies would bring them from Canada, through the western United States and into Mexico. Each year, in small towns and cities throughout western Mexico, the butterflies would herald the return of millions of eagerly awaited spirits.
So, as you watch the leaves change color, wondering why fall seems to get shorter every year, or even as you read this paper, walking on campus, spare a thought for a loved one who might not be in your life anymore. Try to remember how their life affected yours. Celebrate Día de los Muertos with us and find joy in those memories. As always, stay safe and be mindful of others.