Dia De Los Muertos: A Colorful Celebration of Life and Death

Ashleigh Smith + photo

Ashleigh Smith

Nov 1
6 min read
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dia de los muertos header with festive skulls and animal illustration
Chelsea Hafer Written By Chelsea Hafer

Picture a vibrant tapestry of marigold flowers, sugar skulls, and candle-lit altars adorning the streets. Families joyfully decorating the graves of their loved ones, sharing delicious food, and recounting stories of those who have passed. This isn't Halloween, but rather a beautiful holiday originating in Mexico known as Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. A celebration of life entwined with the inevitability of death, Dia de los Muertos is a unique and full of profoundly meaningful tradition.

Feelings of warmth, nostalgia, and reverence envelop those who participate in Dia de los Muertos. It's a time to remember and honor departed friends and family members, a moment when the boundary between the living and the dead seems to blur. But how did this remarkable celebration come to be? What influences have shaped its customs, from the colorful marigold flowers to the delectable foods lovingly prepared for the departed?

In this journey through the heart of Dia de los Muertos, we'll unveil the captivating history behind this Mexican holiday and discover the profound cultural, natural, and culinary influences that have made it a global symbol of honoring the departed. Join us as we delve into a world where death is not feared but embraced, where life and remembrance intertwine in a beautiful tapestry of traditions.

Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, has deep historical roots that trace back some 3,000 years to the rituals of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztecs and other Nahua people in central Mexico had a cyclical view of the universe, where death was an integral part of life. They believed that when a person died, their soul embarked on a challenging journey through nine levels to reach Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. This journey, taking several years, culminated in Mictlán, the final resting place.

In traditional Nahua rituals, held in August, families provided food, water, and tools to aid the deceased on this arduous journey. These practices laid the foundation for contemporary Dia de los Muertos traditions, where people leave food and offerings on graves or create ofrendas (altars) in their homes.

Dia de los Muertos' traditions emerged from this rich historical context and a blend of influences. While the holiday shares some similarities with All Souls Day and All Saints Day in medieval Europe, it is not a Mexican version of Halloween, despite some common elements like costumes and parades.

On Dia de los Muertos, the boundary between the spirit world and the living world is believed to dissolve briefly. Souls awaken and return to celebrate with their loved ones. Families treat the deceased as honored guests, offering their favorite foods and other items at graves or ofrendas. These altars are adorned with candles, marigolds (cempasuchil), and red cock's combs, accompanied by stacks of tortillas and fruit.

The iconic symbols of Dia de los Muertos are calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). In the early 20th century, artist José Guadalupe Posada incorporated skeletal figures in his art, often satirizing politicians and commenting on revolutionary politics. His famous work, La Calavera Catrina, became an enduring symbol of the holiday, depicting an elegantly dressed female skeleton.

During contemporary celebrations, people often wear skull masks and enjoy sugar candy shaped like skulls. Traditional sweets like pan de muerto, a sweet baked bread, are also central to the festivities. Other year-round foods and drinks associated with the holiday include spicy dark chocolate and atole, a corn-based beverage.

The Day of the Dead was initially celebrated in rural, indigenous areas of Mexico but spread to cities in the 1980s. In 2008, UNESCO recognized it as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The holiday's popularity grew further, fueled by its portrayal in pop culture and its embrace in the United States, where millions of people identify with Mexican heritage.

Inspired by the Day of the Dead, major U.S. cities started hosting parades and festivities. The 2015 James Bond movie Spectre, featuring a Day of the Dead parade, contributed to its global visibility. In 2017, Disney and Pixar's film Coco paid homage to the tradition, further cementing its place in popular culture.

Despite evolving customs and varying scales of celebration, the essence of Dia de los Muertos remains unchanged over thousands of years. It's a time to remember and celebrate those who have passed, presenting death as a natural part of the human experience and portraying it in a positive light.

Dia de los Muertos is a vibrant and meaningful celebration deeply rooted in history and culture. It is a time to honor and remember our loved ones who have departed, embracing death as an integral part of life's cyclical nature.

As we've seen, the holiday's origins trace back thousands of years, evolving through time while preserving its core essence. The traditions of creating ofrendas, offering favorite foods, and adorning calacas and calaveras connect the living and the deceased in a unique and profound way.

Dia de los Muertos stands as a testament to the resilience of cultural heritage, spreading from indigenous communities to urban centers and transcending borders. Its global recognition reflects its universal themes of remembrance, celebration, and a positive outlook on the inevitable journey we all must undertake.

We encourage you to partake in this beautiful celebration, whether you belong to the vibrant Mexican culture or simply wish to appreciate the rich traditions and symbolism it offers. Share your own experiences, stories, and plans for Dia de los Muertos in the comments below, and let this holiday continue to foster connections, understanding, and a celebration of life in all its forms.

Chelsea Hafer, True Leaf Market Writer

Chelsea is a passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture and loves getting her hands dirty and watching things grow! She graduated from Georgetown University in 2022 with a degree in Environmental Justice and now resides in Park City, Utah, where she works as a ski instructor. Her love for nature extends to gardening and hiking, and she has gained valuable insights from working on farms in Italy, Hawaii, and Mexico, learning various sustainable agriculture techniques like permaculture and Korean Natural Farming.

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