Dia de Los Muertos is a holiday celebrated mostly in Mexico, in which people honor their dead friends and relatives. Although most people believe this holiday is the Mexican version of Halloween, it is actually based on an ancient Aztec tradition that goes back as far as 2500 years. When Spanish conquistadors discovered Mexico in the 15th century, they observed many Aztec, Maya and Inca rituals that perplexed them; among these was the month-long Festival of the Dead. The Aztecs, who lived mostly in what is currently central Mexico, set aside the entire ninth month of their calendar year to pay tribute to their fallen friends, family and comrades.
Modern Mexico is home to a unique culture of people who were both influenced by their native ancestors, including the Aztecs, as well as the Spanish conquerors who fought their way into the heart of South America more than 500 years ago. Thanks to the mingling of European and native Mexican traditions, the month-long Festival of the Dead eventually came to be celebrated over the span of three days: October 31, November 1 and November 2. Dia de Los Muertos – translated in English as “Day of the Dead,” does bear resemblance to the Celtic-based festival of Halloween, which is perhaps the reason the two holidays are celebrated simultaneously. Interestingly, both ancient festivals celebrate a supernatural occurrence, or “thinning of the veil,” where the spirits of the dead can pass over into the world of the living.
In Mexico, Dia de Los Muertos is separated into three separate days; All Hallow’s Eve; All Saints Day; and All Souls Day. On the first night, children set up altars in memory of the souls of small girls and boys who have died, and invite those souls back to the world for a few hours. On All Saints Day, the spirits of all adults who have died are believed to return and inhabit the Earth once more. The final day, All Souls Day, is celebrated by entire families as they visit their deceased family members in the cemetery.
In Mexico, cemeteries are not simple fields of crosses and tombstones; they are tiny towns dedicated to the spirits of the deceased. As you can see from this photo of a cemetery in Cancun, Mexico, tiny concrete houses with gates and miniature landscaping features are used to mark the spot where a person has been laid to rest, either by burial or in an urn. Friends and relatives can visit on any day, and in many cases even walk into a tiny front porch and sit in the “home” of the deceased. On the third Dia de Los Muertos, whole families will not only visit the graves of their relatives, but bring presents to the spirits of the dead.
Popular gifts are sugar candy skulls, drinks and even a special pan de muerto – “death bread.” Because of the heavy influence of Halloween, modern Dia de Los Muertos is also celebrated by children who dress in costumes and visit their neighbors, looking for treats and coins. It’s a lot like Halloween, but uncannily, this holiday was conceived thousands of miles away from the Celts.
Written by Mandy Gardner