Día de los Muertos
(Day of the dead)
By Aaron Paxman
The day of the dead is a longstanding tradition in Mexican American Culture that
takes place over two days. This wasn’t always the case though, it originally was a
month long event until the Conquistadors conquered the Aztecs. Since the
conquistadors were trying to “civilize” the Aztecs they moved the “pagan” ritual to
coincide with “All Saints Day” on November 1st and 2nd.
Traditionally this commemoration was used to honor family members who had passed
away during the year. The family would make alters or shrines inside their home to
place food and drinks that their loved ones liked in hopes that their loved ones spirit
would visit them. The cross shown here is an example of how the catholic religion of
the Spanish has affected this tradition.
As this event evolved there were family gatherings and parties that
eventually became scheduled events and parades to honor loved ones.
Today there are many parades and an almost commercialized feel to the
festivities and many of the younger generation see it as a time to dress up
and have fun with friends. This is countered only by the mourning who
wear pictures of their recently departed loved ones to show respect for
their ancestral traditions.
Traditionally in Mexican culture, gravesites are visited during the
celebration to bring flowers and light candles in honor of loved ones. In
some cases families will have a picnic in the cemetery containing the
family members favorite foods and drinks. If the family member was a
child, games, toys, and candy are brought to honor them.
Since the Day of the dead celebrations are such a tourist attraction
the crowds often close down streets. In Mexico city, the entire city
is sometimes closed for the celebration. Travel expenses and
hotel/motel accommodations are hard to come by and have higher
rates during the week of the event.
Aside from being a large tourist attraction this event has many smaller nuances
that vary from family to family or town to town. These dolls (and many other
celebratory items) are considered to be good luck to the people who own
them. Many stores in Mexico sell these items year-round.
These candy skulls are sometimes given to children as a way to help them
enjoy the holiday. Sometimes adults will write the name of a loved one on
the forehead of the skull before eating as a way to remember them and a
sign of respect. These candies are one of the most produced items during
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cup water
6 cups flour
2 packets dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons whole anise
2 tablespoons orange zest
3/4 cup sugar
4 large eggs
Bring all ingredients to room
temperature (except for the
water which should be very
warm) before beginning. In a
large bowl, mix together
butter, sugar, anise, salt and
1/2 cup of the flour. In a
separate bowl combine the
eggs and the water. Add the
egg/water mixture to the first
mixture and add in another
1/2 cup of the flour. Add in
the yeast and another 1/2
During the celebration there are some traditional
cup of flour. Continue to add
recipes for food besides the sweets. One such the flour 1 cup at a time until
recipe is for sweet bread. a dough forms.
As seen here, fake skulls are displayed in honor of the Aztec tradition. Skulls were
kept by the Aztec as trophies from their battles and were displayed during the
celebrations. This ritual was a sign of power and respect.
The main reason for the day of the dead is to represent death as an extension of
life. The Aztecs believed that death was not the end but rather that life was a
kind of dream that you will awake from when you die. As a symbol of this many
people wear calacas (decorated skulls) that have vibrant colors. In this case the
owner decided to wear it as a tattoo which is not an uncommon sight in many
Mexican-American tattoo parlors.
Marigolds are the traditional flower of the day of the dead. They come in many
shades but the most popular are orange and yellow. These flowers are used to
make decorations for graves and alters. The flowers are also used to make a path
from mourners homes to their loved ones graves so that the spirits of their loved
ones can find their way to and from the grave to the houses.
In the U.S. the celebration is as traditional as Mexico’s. There are
organizers who inform the youth about the event as well as help to
make the evening as respectful as possible. Seen here is a woman
placing a flower arrangement on what was an empty flower box. In
this Link is one of the pages that the organizers use to educate.
Mexico and the U.S. are not the only ones that celebrate this
event. Prague, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Ecuador, Italy,
Brazil, Haiti, Bolivia, Philippines, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium,
Poland, and many more have their own way to celebrate or morn
the dead from candle light vigils to parades and feasts.
The day of the dead can also be seen in today's popular culture.
An example of this is the computer game “Grim Fandango” which portrays
imagery from the day of the dead. Recent movie “The Corpse Bride”
portrays the dead having a “family reunion” during one scene. The popular
video game World of Warcraft had a special event where its player could
find special “day of the dead” items during the 1st and 2nd of november.
All over the world different people have different ways to deal with the loss of a
loved one. The Día de los Muertos celebration is the traditional way that Mexican-
Americans commemorate the belief of continued life for their lost.