For those that didn’t see the Pixar/Disney movie Coco (which was fabulous!) we’re going to explain a little about the day.
What is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)?
Here in the valley we think of it as primarily a Mexican holiday although there are many other areas and cultures that celebrate it or something similar. In the Philippines it is called “Araw ng mga Yumao” and is similar but the celebrations happen more at the gravesites than in the home. It’s also celebrated in Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Brazil, Bolivia, and Belize in various ways. Not all are similar though. In Southern Italy Ossa di Morto – a bone like biscotti is placed in the shoes once worn by the dead.
While it’s normally associated with November 1st, it can be celebrated as early as October 31st and last till November 2nd. Traditionally it’s believed that at Midnight on October 31st the souls of the departed children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families. On November 2nd, the adult departed come down to join the fun.
Fun? Yes, Fun! Some might incorrectly associate it with somber observances like All Saints Day or All Hallows’ Eve, but Dia de los Muertos is a joyful celebration.
It’s a time for the living to remember and share funny events and stories about their loved ones that have departed.
You may see highly decorated alters where people have laid out the favorite food and beverages, photos and other memorabilia of those that they have lost. The idea is to encourage the souls of those gone to come back and visit.
Ofrendas can be small and private, large and in public, or anywhere in between.
Many of these alters will also have Marigold flowers. In Mexico these are also known as Flor de Muerto or Flower of Dead and they are thought to attract souls of the dead to the ofrenda.
Candles are often used to light the way for the dead. Pan de Muerto – a sweet bread is often on the altar, along with their favorite foods, water, salt, photos, trinkets, and brightly colored tissue paper with cut-out designs called Papel Picado.
Don’t be surprised to see small little toys, right next to bottles of tequila. An ofrenda isn’t just for one person, it can be for many. The family may be honoring a lost toddler as well as a grandparent.
Remember, this isn’t about hauntings or poltergeists, this is about remembering, honoring and being together with your family or friends, both departed and living.
Sugar Skulls (calaveras)
A common theme you’ll see is the skull or calavera. This tradition started in the 18th century. At that time Mexico was relatively poor and people used sugar to create art as it was readily available. The calavera de azucar. The elaborately decorated sugar skull represented a departed soul, sometimes with their name on the forehead, and then placed upon the ofrenda.
Some people think that it was a print in a early 1900’s newspaper by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, titled “Catrina” that started the painting of faces in the elaborate sugar skull style. Today you’ll see many women, children, and men, not only with painted faces but elaborate head dresses and costumes. The style is not meant to look scary or bloody. It’s supposed to be uplifting and positive.
Let’s talk about those vibrant colors!
Orange is the color for the Marigold. The fragrant petals of these flowers are thought to help guide spirits of loved ones to the celebration.
White is the color of the sugar skulls and it’s said to represent hope and purity.
Yellow represents the sun and unity.
Red represents life and love.
Purple is for mourning and grief.
Pink is said to represent happiness.
Blue is for water, the returning souls might be thirsty.
Green is for those that were young when they passed.
Black represents the land of the dead.
Often the decorations try to blend elements of the dead with those of the living. You might see skeletal outlines or features on some or all of the outfit blending in with elements of the “alive”. The general idea is, once again, to welcome the departed and make them feel more comfortable.
We hope this helps you better understand the Day of the Dead and we hope you take the time to remember those departed loved ones in your family in a way that brings a smile to your face and theirs!