Día de los Muertos and the Significance of Ritual
From its symbolic candy skulls and costumed processions, to candlelit vigils in cemeteries across the world, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, offers a way for family and friends to honor the spirits of ancestors who have departed. Throughout Latin America, the Southwestern United States, and more recently other parts of the country, people from all backgrounds and ethnicities are embracing the idea of a colorful, spirited, and positive way to honor the lives of those who have gone before us.
Through the use of bright colors, offerings of food and drink, and music, thoughts of sadness and sorrow are negated. Symbolically, we invite our deceased loved ones back to earth for an occasion of joy and merriment.
Day of the Dead History and Expression
Originating in pre-Columbian times, El Día de los Muertos has been celebrated in Mexico and other Latin countries on the evening of November 1st. Its origins combine pre-Aztec ritual with post-Conquistador Catholicism. With its colorful calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls), the premise of the night is to celebrate rather than provoke fear of sadness. The tradition evokes the departed’s life in a way that uplifts and cherishes favorite foods, belongings, and clothes, and even indulgences like cigars and tequila.
Traditionally, families grew or purchased many bunches of bright orange and yellow marigolds, which were also used by the Aztecs for rites associated with burials. It is still believed that these colors are associated with the earth, and therefore draw the spirits back to homes, grave sites, and altars.
During the festival, celebrants gather in a plaza or central location as night falls. There they proceed to tell stories, play music, and entertain the souls of the departed in a procession that leads to the local cemetery. At the graves of their ancestors, offerings are given in the forms of food, flowers, beverages, and other favorite possessions of the departed. Celebrants remain with the spirits for the duration of the night.
Modern Expressions of Ritual
As the popularity of Día de los Muertos grows, modern interpretations and decorations have changed considerably. Often you will find artistic designs that celebrate the lives of famous individuals, popular writers, and screen actors alongside altars which honor a favorite uncle or one’s parents. And, just as diverse as those being celebrated, are offerings of food and mementoes not typically found in a traditional Mexican market.
Even cities in the Midwest are embracing this all-night events with their own processions and gatherings. Día de los Muertos is often even celebrated in many museums and galleries, where some of the best known Latin American artists, whose work embodied elements of this cultural expression, are on display.
Altars as Tributes
The purpose of the altar is to not only to display favorite images of the departed, as well as symbols and possessions associated with them, but to also provide ofrendas or offerings. These offerings are used to entice the spirits of the dead to return to earth during this celebration and be near those friends and family members who love them.
On the altars of departed children, you will find toys, games, and pictures of favorite cartoon characters. On the altars of beloved pets, you might find bowls of treats or toys that were most appealing to the pets being honored.
No matter how one chooses to celebrate the spirits of those who have passed beyond, Día de los Muertos is a fascinating holiday and opportunity to express the true zest and beauty of all that life has to offer. Because all of us are touched by loss in our lifetime, this holiday continues to attract new celebrants as we move away from a more somber take on mourning and embrace those memories and experiences of those we love in a grand celebration of life.