Day Of The Dead History
Far from a Mexican version of Halloween, The Day of the Dead history, or Día de los Muertos, is a traditional holiday in its own right, celebrated across the United States, Mexico and Central America. Rooted in the ancient traditions of Mexican indigenous groups like the Maya, Aztec and Nahuatl, the Day of the Dead celebrates and honors the dead—especially relatives and ancestors. Modern Day of the Dead traditions like skull candies and decorations are based in pre-Hispanic customs of collecting skulls (real human ones) to use in rituals as a symbol of death and rebirth. For Mexico’s native peoples, death wasn’t the end, but rather the continuation of life.
Over 500 years ago, when the Spanish landed in what is now Mexico, they found the locals practicing rituals that seemed to mock death. Despite unsucessful attempts by the "conquistadores" at eradication, the tradition eventually merged with Catholic theology and survives to this day (at over 3,000 years old, the ritual the natives were practicing apparently had some staying power). The original holiday was celebrated the entire month of August and presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, or the "Lady of the Dead," but was moved to coincide with All Saints' and All Souls' day by the Spanish to "Christianize" it.
But don’t let the name of the holiday itself, or the skeleton and skull decorations, fool you. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is as much a celebration of life, as it is death. This traditional holiday, observed on the first and second of November (All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, respectively), is celebrated in unique ways in every community with the general focus being on celebrating the lives of dearly departed loved ones. Apart from traditional skull candies and skeletons (historically made from sugar, but now often made from chocolate or almond paste), orange marigolds, and burgundy cock’s comb are the traditional flowers used to decorate Day of the Dead altars and graves. The marigolds are to help guide the spirits home for the celebrations, and the cock’s comb symbolizes mourning. Candles and incense are also typical in decoration.
Traditional food and dishes are offered to friends and families, as well as the deceased during Day of the Dead celebrations. A typical food prepared for the Day of the Dead include pan de muertos, or bread of the dead, a round loaf of sweetbread decorated with dough bones before baking to provide spirits with sustenance after a long journey home to visit their living relatives. Favorite foods of deceased relatives are sometimes offered, and most altars include salt to represent the earth, and water to represent purity.
Over the years, historic Day of the Dead traditions have evolved and every community's celebration is unique. In some regions, wooden arches are decorated with marigolds and placed on the grave of loved ones that have passed on within the last year. Still in others, a home altar to honor the recently deceased is constructed with food for an ofrenda or offering. In many rural areas and villages, traditional all-night candlelit vigils are held in cemeteries, while many urbanites have adapted Day of the Dead traditions to their lifestyles by constructing votive altars in their apartments.