Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), a festival to remember and honor the deceased, is observed in Mexico, among Latin Americans in the USA, Canada and Central American countries. The festival traces its root back to an Aztec festival. Honoring the dead has been parts of many different ancient civilizations that is 2500-3000 years old.
Interestingly, in the United States a similar observation is performed each year on 31st October, 2009 – Halloween. Read our EXCLUSIVE featured article on Halloween connection to Hindu Goddess Kali to learn more similar observations around the world.
Even today in various cultures and religions scattered in different parts of the world, festivals are observed and ceremonies performed to honor the the dead, pray for the peace of the souls and remember them. And many a times it is believed that the blessings of the dead bring good fortune to the living. While the details of the rites and rituals vary, the basic spirit and theme often share similarities. The settings of these ceremonies also have a lot in common, one of which is that the celebrations in many a times take place around October -November. Even though worshipping the dead is a celebration of the ‘dark’, they bring with the celebration of the lights and this is true for many cultures.
Though Day of the Dead is now celebrated on Nov. 1st and Nov. 2nd, the ancient Aztec ritual was observed for a month starting in early August, which would be the ninth Aztec month. The ancient Azteczs worshiped the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the Lady of the Dead who died at birth and is believed to be the goddess of afterlife. When the Spanish invaders landed in Mexico, they wanted to eradicate this day of the dead celebration which appeared to be a sacrilege to them. But when that could not be done, they shifted the celebration to the beginning of November with their celebration of the All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Today, the Day of the Dead is a holiday observed all over Mexico. Nov. 1st, the first day of the celebration, is in the memory of the deceased children (Dia de los Angelitos) and Nov. 2nd is observed in memory of the deceased adults (Dia de los Muertos).
It is the time of the year when people remember the family members who have passed away and perform rituals in their memory and honor. The souls of those who have died are believed to visit the earth on the Day of the Dead. Personal alters are built in every house with offerings of food, drinks, lighted candles, flowers accompanied by rituals. The preparation starts quite some time prior to the festival. The family graveyards are cleaned, and the graves are colored. An important part of the festival is to prepare and offer the soul their favorite food and drinks which may include rice, beans, meat, mole, sweets, water, coffee, beer, tequila, and whatever the person liked to eat in his mortal life. Other offerings include baked goods, sweet bread, edibles made from chocolate, sugar and shaped into skulls, coffins, bones, etc. The alters sometimes have wooden skulls, that symbolize death and rebirth, with the deceased’s names inscribed on them. The alters of the kids may also have toys. The building of an alter is marked with artistic works of paper and silk decorations, trinkets, flowers of wreaths of marigold, lights and candles, incense sticks, or photos of the person in whose memory the alter has been built. Every effort is made to welcome the dead. Sometimes towels, water, bed and blankets are kept by the alters for the deceased to refresh themselves and rest after their long journey back to home. Candles are lit to show way to the souls and help them find their way back home.
On Nov. 2nd, people visit the cemeteries of their relatives often with certain worldly offerings, where they spend the rest of their day. It is marked mor with life than grief. The families bring picnic lunches with them and share time together. But not all rituals are performed in all places.
Some of the other countries that have celebrations in honor of the dead are Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Philippines, though the extent and details vary. European countries with Roman Catholic heritage celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day in honor of the deceased. Countries like Italy, France, Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Sweden, Germany perform certain rituals in paying tribute to the deceased family members. Asian countries like India, Nepal, Japan, China, Korea have their own celebrations of offering respect to the deceased.