We've all heard about the Day of the Dead or seen the classic sugar skull —but what does this celebration really symbolize?
1. Origins, History and Traditions
Día de los Muertos is an important religious and cultural celebration with historically rich traditions and practices associated with ancient and modern indigenous peoples of the Americas. The holiday takes places on November 1st and 2nd, coinciding with the Roman Catholic practices of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively. Together, the two dates are conceptualized as Día de los Muertos. It is believed that upon these two nights of the year the deceased may return and visit with the living.
2. Rituals of Life and Death
In Mesoamerica there was a great deal of cultural diversity. One of the main contributions to Día del los Muertos was the Aztecs or “Mexica” believed that life and death were the forces of the earth and a natural part of the cycle of regeneration. The Aztecs also believed that a person had three souls. Each one could go to an afterlife, become a divine force, or could even stay behind and give strength to its family; therefore, they had a great deal of respect for the dead.
3. All Saint’s Day/All Souls Day
Día de los Muertos is annually celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, coinciding with the agricultural cycle and the combined Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. November 1st is called Día de los Angelitos (All Saint’s Day). It is a widely held belief that the souls of the children called "Angelitos" return on this day. November 2nd, is called “Día de Finados” (All Souls Day), is dedicated for the souls of adults. Individuals and families are renewed by remembering their roots and paying homage to those who have departed.
4. CEMPASÚCHITL (sem-pah-soo’-cheel)
The Cempasúchitl is a Mexican marigold. Its shape and color are symbolic of the sun that gives energy and light to all life. The Cempasúchitl was the symbolic flower of death of the Aztecs of pre-Hispanic Mexico. They represent love and the cycle of life and death as they grow, die, decompose, and then give nourishment to new life.
The art of Mexico has continually portrayed death as a central part of life. In the pre-Hispanic mind, life and death were perceived not as opposites but as two complementary elements that formed the complete cycle of life. Perhaps the most famous calavera is the elegant Victorian lady Calavera Catrina created by the famous master printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). La Calavera Catrina is the skeleton of a high-society lady wearing a large fancy hat. This figure has become an iconic symbol of Día de los Muertos.
6. Traditional Food
There are many traditional foods associated with Day of the Dead. Although the altar is the primary common element across Día de los Muertos celebrations, the holiday is generally celebrated as well with abundant amount of food and celebratory activities. In Mexico traditional recipes for Día de los Muertos include alfeñiques (sugar skulls), atole (a type of thick hot cocoa made with masa), and pan de muerto (a dessert bread shaped into bones). Pumpkin candies, rice pudding, and tamales are also offered. Pan de muertos, or bread of the dead, is specially made to be placed on altars and graves. It is sweet bread favored with anise, orange peel, and orange glaze. There are round loaves with a central raised knob of dough, representing the skull, and crossed bone-shaped decorations radiating from the central knob.
7. Folk Art
Día de los Muertos art, whether it be a fragile piece of paper or a sugary candy, acts not as a warning of death’s inevitability so much as a reminder to enjoy the sweetness of life. Día de los Muertos folk art consist of wood, wire, and clay skeletons. Cartonería is the name for fanciful props that brighten the fiesta or celebration. They are constructed of paper, cardboard, and paper-mache: paper stuck together and hardened with wheat-flour paste. Papel picado are decorative paper banners that are an integral part of the altars. The fluttering tissue-paper cut-outs move with the slightest breeze, representing the element of air or wind. They are made with a chisel that cuts through several layers of paper at a time and hung on the altar to create decorations that remind the viewer of the impermanence of life, highlighting the fragility of the tissue paper, which will eventually disintegrate with time.
The primary common element across Día de los Muertos celebration is the altar. Altars are built on a table-like surface or constructed as stairs. According to indigenous beliefs, the altar must consist of four essential elements which are earth, wind, water, and fire. The earth is represented by symbols and aromas of the harvest season. Wind is evoked by the use of papel picado (artfully cut paper) fluttering freely in the breeze. Water is placed in an open container so the souls may quench their thirst after the long journey, and fire is symbolized by the ever-present burning candles that guide the souls home. (Hall, n.d.) In addition to the four natural elements, salt is also placed on the altar in containers and serves to purify the spirits. Copal, an incense, is placed so that its smoky tendrils rise like spirits. The Cepazuchtl flowers (marigolds) are scattered on the floor as a path leading from the front door to the altar guiding the spirits on this night. (Hall, n.d.) In addition, The altar often includes a cloth to cover the altar, photos of the deceased, their favorite foods, and small mementos to commemorate the memory of those who have passed away. Each item is meaningful to the deceased. No item is lightly placed without significance.
9. Sugar Skulls
The first celebrations of All Souls Day on November 2nd in Mexico were carried out when the very first artifacts arrived from Europe in the early 1530s. During the next 300 years of the Spanish Colony in Mexico, people took artifacts made of bread or of sugar paste to be blessed on November 2nd seeking protection and blessings for the year. This custom set the stage for the present day tradition of sugar skulls. The use of sugar and salt are to express the bitter and sweet aspects of life shared with those who are deceased.
The Alebrijes are mystical creatures. The Zapotec culture had a belief system that people had a guardian animals that followed them throughout their lives. This is how the Alebrijes have come to have a greater meaning than their simple beauty. They have been transformed over decades and have been adopted into Mexican folk art. The origins of the Alebrijes can be traced to Pedro Linares (1906 - 1992) a renowned indigenous Mexican artist from Oaxaca, Mexico.
Ready to celebrate?
Join Artes de la Rosa's 19th Annual Día de Los Muertos en Fort Worth Celebration Parade & Festival on North Main Avenue in the heart of the Historic Northside of Fort Worth. Find more ways to celebrate.
This blog is to increase cultural awareness, lend a deeper acceptance for its modern value and generate a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Mexican culture in our community.
Rosalinda Martinez (she/her/Ella) Latina | Mom | Wife | Educator | Historian | Blogger | Art Lover | Community Champion | Volunteer | Published Author
Arturo Martinez (He/Him/El) award-winning Creative Director | Fort Worth Native | Artist | Designer | Cultural Worker
El Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, Educational Activity Guide, Mexicarte Museum, 2nd Eduction, 2009
Días de los Muertos Curriculum Packet, Oakland Museum of California, Bea Carrillo, 2005
El Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, Educational Activity Guide, Mexi-Art Museum, 2nd Edition, 2020
Day of the Dead, Museum of International Folk Art, 2019
Study Guide, Bringing the Dead back to life, Latino Arts Inc.
Días de los Muertos K-12 Educator’s Guide, Produced by the. University of New Mexico, Latin American & Iberian Institute
El Día de los Muertos, Professional Development Workshop, Vanderbilt University, 2010
The Significance behind Alebrijes, Daniela Olguin. “HC at UC Riverside”. March 17, 2019