At first glance, the Mexican custom of the Día de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — may sound much like the U.S. custom of Halloween. After all, the celebration traditionally starts at midnight the night of Oct. 31st, and the festivities are abundant in images related to those on the “other side.”
But those who celebrate Day of the Dead have a different focus. In typical Halloween festivities (which are of Celtic origin), death is something to be feared. In Day of the Dead celebrations, death, or at least the memories of those who have passed, is something to be celebrated.
Day of the Dead celebrations developed from ancient traditions among Mexico’s pre-Columbian cultures. These rituals have been observed perhaps for as long as 2,500-3,000 years. These celebrations are wonderful ways to connect with those who have gone before us.
According to National Geographic Kids, people set up candlelit altars in their homes so spirits can find their way back to their relatives. The altars also offer some of the favorite foods of the deceased — just in case they get hungry. Items that were important to the ancestors when they were alive, such as a favorite book or musical instrument, are placed on the altar as well. Pillows and blankets are left out so the deceased can rest after their long journey. Then it’s off to the graveyard for a big party. Families bring huge feasts to eat while they clean tombstones, sing songs, and talk to their ancestors. Parents might even introduce a baby to a grandparent who died before the baby was born.
Children make children’s altars to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit. Bottles of tequila or mezcal or jars of atole, (a drink typically made from masa, water, pilloncillo, cinnamon, vanilla, and optional chocolate or fruit) are brought for adult spirits. Some families decorate with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (“bread of dead”), and sugar skulls.
Life-size papier-mâché skeletons and miniature plastic or clay skeletons are everywhere, a common symbol of the holiday. The skull, or calavera, is represented in masks or body skeletons called calacas.
Sugar or chocolate skulls, which are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead, can be given as gifts to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits, often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.
So the next time you see one of those colorfully painted skulls used in Day of the Dead celebrations, don’t be afraid of them. Celebrate the life it represents, and then celebrate your own life as well.