November 1, 2007
The Day of the Dead (Día de los Difuntos or Día de los Muertos in Spanish) is a holiday celebrated mainly in Mexico and the Mexican immigrant community living in the United States, with variations of it also observed in other Latin American countries and other parts of the world. The Mexican celebration occurs on November 1 (All Saints’ Day) and November 2 (All Souls’ Day).
Though the subject matter may be considered morbid from the perspective of some other cultures, celebrants typically approach the Day of the Dead joyfully, and though it occurs roughly at the same time as Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day, the traditional mood is much brighter with emphasis on celebrating and honoring the lives of the deceased, and celebrating the continuation of life; the belief is not that death is the end, but rather the beginning of a new stage in life. In Mexico and Mexican immigrant communities in the United States and Europe, the Day of the Dead is of particular cultural importance.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated to a lesser extent in other Latin American countries; for example, it is a public holiday in Brazil, where many Brazilians celebrate it by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain this holiday has great festivals dedicated to it also, there are big parades, and at the end of the day people all gather around cemeteries and pray to their loved ones that have died. Most of them are Catholic. The holiday is also observed in the Philippines. Observance of the holiday in Mexican-American communities in the United States has become more important and widespread as the community grows both numerically and economically each generation. Similarly-themed celebrations also appear in some Asian and African cultures.
Some Mexicans feel that death is a special occasion, but with elements of celebration, because the soul is passing into another life. Plans for the festival are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods to be offered to the dead. During the period of November 1 and November 2, families usually clean and decorate the graves. Most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas, or offerings, which often include orange marigold called “cempasuchil”, originally named cempaxochitl, Nahuatl for “twenty flowers”, in modern Mexico this name is often replaced with the term “Flor de Muerto”, Spanish for “Flower of the Dead”. These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings.
Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or little angels), and bottles of tequila, mezcal, pulque or atole for adults. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) or sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. The ofrendas are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the “spiritual essence” of the ofrenda food, so even though the celebrators eat the food after the festivity, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so that the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives.
Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes. These altars usually have the Christian cross, statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other persons, and scores of candles. Traditionally, families spend some time around the altar praying and telling anecdotes about the deceased. In some locations, celebrants wear shells on their clothing so when they dance the dead will wake up because of the noise. Some will dress up as the deceased.
Public schools at all levels build altars with offerings, usually omitting the religious symbols. Government offices usually have at least a small altar, as this holiday is seen as important to the Mexican heritage.
Those with writing talent sometimes create short poems, called “calaveras” (“skulls”), mocking epitaphs of friends, sometimes with things they used to do in life. This custom originated in the 18th-19th century, after a newspaper published a poem narrating a dream of a cemetery in the future, “and all of us were dead”, proceeding to “read” the tombstones. Newspapers dedicate calaveras to public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of José Guadalupe Posada. Theatrical presentations of Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla (1817–1893) are also traditional on this day.
Pan de muerto, traditionally eaten on the holidayA common symbol of the holiday is the skull (colloquially called calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (colloquial term for “skeleton”), and foods such as sugar skulls, which are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead. Sugar skulls are gifts that can be given to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes, from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.
Island Pacanda, Lake Patzcuaro Mexico – Dia de los Muertos
The traditions and activities that take place in celebration of the Day of the Dead are not universal and often vary from town to town. For example, in the town of Pátzcuaro on the Lago de Pátzcuaro in Michoacán the tradition is very different if the deceased is a child rather than an adult. On November 1 of the year after a child’s death, the godparents set a table in the parents’ home with sweets, fruits, pan de muerto, a cross, a Rosary (used to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for them) and candles. This is meant to celebrate the child’s life, in respect and appreciation for the parents. There is also dancing with colorful costumes, often with skull-shaped masks and devil masks in the plaza or garden of the town. At midnight on November 2, the people light candles and ride winged boats called mariposas (Spanish for “butterfly”) to Janitzio, an island in the middle of the lake where there is a cemetery, to honor and celebrate the lives of the dead there.
In contrast, the town of Ocotepec, north of Cuernavaca in the State of Morelos opens its doors to visitors in exchange for ‘veladoras’ (small wax candles) to show respect for the recently dead. In return, the visitors receive tamales and ‘atole’. This is only done by the owners of the house where somebody in the household has died in the previous year. Many people of the surrounding areas arrive early to eat for free and enjoy the elaborate altars set up to receive the visitors from ‘Mictlán’.
In some parts of the country, children in costumes roam the streets, asking passersby for a calaverita, a small gift of money; they don’t knock on people’s doors.
Some people believe that possessing “dia de los muertos” items can bring good luck. Many people get tattoos or have dolls of the dead to carry with them
In many countries with a Roman Catholic heritage, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have long been holidays where people take the day off work, go to cemeteries with candles and flowers, and give presents to children, usually sweets and toys. In Portugal and Spain, ofrendas (offerings) are made on this day. In Spain, the play Don Juan Tenorio is traditionally performed. In Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, people bring flowers to the graves of dead relatives. In Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Croatia, Romania, Austria and Germany, the tradition is to light candles and visit the graves of deceased relatives.In Tyrol, cakes are left for them on the table and the room kept warm for their comfort. In Brittany, people flock to the cemeteries at nightfall to kneel, bareheaded, at the graves of their loved ones, and to anoint the hollow of the tombstone with holy water or to pour libations of milk on it. At bedtime, the supper is left on the table for the souls.
Borrowed from Wikipedia