In celebration of Dia De Los Muertos tomorrow, check out the history of this fun holiday, and look out for the links to some delicious cultural recipes!
The Day of the Dead (or Dia de los Muertos) is celebrated on November 2nd, and represents a culturally-enriched celebration of the spirits of deceased friends, relatives, and acquaintances. I decided to blog about this today as the celebration is two-part, the first celebration being tomorrow (November 1st – All Saint’s Day), and the second part being the following day (November 2nd – All Soul’s Day).
As briefly mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, Dia de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated by families in Mexico by creating altars within the home, upon which treats and goods are left as votive offerings (or ofrendas) to the deceased. One of the most common of these items are sugar skulls (one of the most pervasive images associated with Dia de los Muertos). The symbolism behind the skull is obviously worldwide, but in Mexico it specifically references examples from Aztec and Mayan artistic tradition.
If anyone is interested – here is a recipe for making your very own sugar skulls! Tasty, and cultural!
The origins of Dia de los Muertos date back to the Aztec empire and their celebrations featuring ancestor-worship (a commonality of many indigenous MesoAmerican cultures). This celebration centered around Mictecacihuatl, who was the Aztec queen of the underworld.
Sometimes referred to as the “Lady of the Dead,” she was the protector of the physical remains of the deceased, and was therefore intricately involved in the celebrations of passed ancestors. In many pre-Columbian religions, the bones of the dead (specifically the skulls) were preserved, cleaned, decorated and presented within the home as a means of ancestor worship. (This practice is actually world-wide, a great example being the the discoveries of decorated skulls in the Tell Mounds of Jericho).
These skulls were covered in plaster, painted, and inlaid with shells and jewels as a means of re-creating some sort of likeness. This practice of preserving bones of the deceased for purposes of ancestor worship is quite common, and is a key aspect of the early Dia de los Muertos celebrations. The modern equivalent of this practice is the visiting of the graveyard during Dia de los Muertos and decorating the grave site of ones deceased relatives. Prior to the graveyard visit is a great parade through the town.
The altars are also an important part of the celebration. As I mentioned before, goods, treats, foods, etc. are left on these altars as votive offerings to the dead, as well as images, memorabilia or personal artifacts. Here is a website
that shows a great distinction between traditional altars and contemporary altars. The incorporation of Christian syncretism is most evident in the altars, which draw directly from Columbian translation of symbolism. The incorporation of Christian symbols (such as the crucifix) and traditional Mexican imagery is to be expected in these altars. Syncretism is also evident in the dates of the celebration, as November 1st and 2nd coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, both Christian holidays. It is often evident in cases such as this (a Christian power coming into an indigenous, pagan civilization), that Christian holidays are overlaid into traditional celebrations and incorporated into previous cultural practices as a means of more easily assimilating Christian culture.
Another really clear example of Christian syncretism is the pan de muerto (or bread of the dead) which is baked and consumed during Dia de los Muertos. The bread is baked in a particular round shape, with bone-like appendages on the top to represent the bones of the deceased. The eating of the bread is therefore ‘consuming’ the deceased. The Christian symbolism there goes without explanation. Here’s another delicious recipe
to try out for pan de muerto – I made it last year on the Day of the Dead and it was quite tasty.
The art associated with Dia de los Muertos is very specific and extremely recognizable. It is very colorful, bright, lively, and at the same time filled with memento mori. Historian Stanley Brandes described the art associated with this celebration as the following.
1. Ephemeral : “Pan de muerto, sugar skulls and coffins, drawings of skulls and skeletons on storefront windows, death images made of straw and cut into colored paper: all these items are made for momentary consumption. They tend to be constructed of flimsy, non-durable material. For the most part, at the popular level in Mexico, they are not saved for display or enjoyment. They exist to celebrate the moment.”
2. Seasonal : “Artistic images are specifically connected to the celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. Representations of death that appear at this time of year are decidedly not incorporated into funerals or the permanent decoration of family tombs. When these images are sold at other times of the year, they tend to occur in a touristic context and, in any event, refer to the specific holiday known as the Day of the Dead.”
: “For the most part, the skulls, skeletons, caskets, and other death-related images that appear during the Day of the Dead evoke laughter rather than sadness, enjoyment rather than pain.”
4. Secular : “The iconography of death holds virtually no sacred meaning either for its producers or its consumers. True, the sugar caskets with little cadavers inserted inside are sometimes decorated with a simple, colored sugar cross. But aside from that one symbol, it would be difficult to discover religious imagery in the Day of the Dead iconography. Skulls and skeletons, be they made of bread or sugar, are generally eaten. Paper, straw, or clay toys are played with and quickly fall apart unless handled with the utmost delicacy. Little or no sacred significance attaches to the objects themselves, although they are incorporated into the celebration of a sacred holiday.”
5. Commercial : “It is made by skilled artisans to be purchased and can be found for sale around the time of the Day of the Dead at virtually all marketplaces throughout Mexico. Urban shopkeepers use drawings of skulls and skeletons to decorate their stores and attract customers.”
6. Design for Living People
: “It is true that this art occasionally decorates tombs and home altars, but it is employed in this fashion solely during the Day of the Dead. Never does it accompany funerals, nor are the recently deceased buried alongside any artistic objects related to the Day of the Dead. The objects and artistic representations associated with the Day of the Dead tend mostly to be purchased by and exchanged among the living as a way of reinforcing social relationships. They are also used for purposes of commercial advertisements as well as political and social satire.”
Dia de los Muertos is a full-filled, syncratic celebration of ones deceased loved ones, filled with tasty treats and deep cultural meaning. As an excellent example of cultural fusion and continuity, this celebration has spread all over the Latin American world and continues to be a time of great fun and celebration. If I see any Dia de los Muertos decorations around today or tomorrow I will post them, so everyone can see how it is celebrated in Upstate New York!
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