Have you noticed the increasingly popular celebration that has crept in between Halloween and All Saints Sunday? The one with the creepy skulls and chalky white human faces painted to resemble death? It’s known as Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and is observed on November 1st and 2nd. To me it’s even creepier than some of the scary Halloween costumes of my youth!
So what is Día de Muertos? A quick explanation is that it is a remembrance of friends and family that have died. It began as an Aztec festival held at the beginning of summer and dedicated to an Aztec goddess. After the Spanish colonization it was moved to coincide with All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day and became more widespread in observance after Mexico declared it a national holiday in the 1960’s. Skulls are the common symbol of the holiday and traditions vary according to geographic areas.
Festivities are planned well in advance and include the building of altars, visits to cemeteries and prayers to invoke the spirits of departed loved ones. Food, gifts for the dead and other celebratory activities are included. Stories and anecdotes about the deceased are often part of the celebration of remembrance.
However, there is a difference between this celebration and All Saints Sunday. On All Saints Sunday Christians reflect on the lives of those who have crossed over to Glory and rejoice in their presence there. While it is a somber time it is also a time of joyful anticipation of reunion with these saints who have gone before us. Día de Muertos reflects on the lives of the deceased, but does not consider the continuity of life in heaven. This celebration leaves the deceased in the grave to be called out and celebrated once a year; thus the use of the skull which represents death.
Once you understand it, it isn’t quite so creepy. Or is it? I prefer to think of la vida, not los muertos!