Catrina, courtesy image

Mari Plaza-Munet

Garfield County Libraries

El Día de los Muertos is an important holiday in Mexico and many countries of Latin America and the world. This is an important holiday where families unite to honor their ancestors or those who passed. While this important celebration happens at different times of the year in other countries, Mexicans celebrate it from Nov. 1-2.

As a historical note, “The inevitability of death is accepted rather than feared. El Día de los Muertos goes back to the Aztecs, who had not just a few days but an entire month dedicated to the dead. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The annual rite features skeletons, altars and other trappings of death, but the ancient holiday celebrates life in its embrace of death. The skeletons dance and sing. Flowers, fruit and candy decorate altars. Death’s morbid side is buried under music and remembrances.

“In the Aztec calendar, this ritual fell roughly at the end of the Gregorian month of July and the beginning of August. In the post-conquest era, it was moved by Spanish priests so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve, “Día de Todos Santos.” The result is that Mexicans now celebrate the Day of the Dead during the first two days of November.” *

According to tradition, the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on Oct. 31, and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours. The spirits of adults can do the same on Nov. 2.

During the honoring of the dead, Día de los Muertos, people in Mexico gather with music, prayer, food and drinks in a celebration that occurs in cemeteries, around the tombs and graves of those who are deceased. The preparations for this significant event begin in mid-October, with families joining in to clean and spruce up graveyards and refresh spaces with fresh marigolds and other flowers.

The ofrendas (offerings) placed on the graveyards are presented to the dead who wish to return, as gifts, and flowers are placed in a trail to support those who passed so they know how to return home. As for all of the food and drinks that are on ofrendas, those become part of the celebration that families partake in as they sing and dance.

One of the most noticeable foods is the ‘pan de muerto,’ a sweet bread baked for the deceased. 

As for decorations, one of the most visible icons is the skeleton figure embellishing the celebrations. Catrinas, called calacas in ancient Spanish, are the most creative, fun and celebrated images identifying this holiday worldwide. The historical origins of the Catrina, dated around 1910, were created by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada.

Posada made this first Catrina (image above), and many others, as a satirical representation of the rich.

Many countries celebrate a tradition honoring the dead. Despite the common belief that the Day of the Dead is exclusively a Mexican tradition, other countries celebrate it in some form including: India, Korea, Nepal, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, China, Ireland, Ecuador, Belize, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Philippines and Haiti, each with their singularities at different times of the year.

The one thing that unites all of these countries is a deep and consistent desire to honor those who passed, the ancestors, with a celebration that pays tribute to their lives and “prayers” that support them after death for a good return home.