El Dia De Los Muertos

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

cross-posted from The Dream Antilles


La Catrina in Mexico City

A brief, incomplete, somewhat opinionated guide to a wonderful holiday:    

The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos in Spanish) is a holiday celebrated mainly in Mexico and by people of Mexican heritage (and others) living in the United States and Canada. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and relatives who have died. The celebration occurs on the 1st and 2nd of November, in connection with the Catholic holy days of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day which take place on those days. Traditions include building private altars honoring the deceased, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts.

Join me across El Rio.

Scholars trace the origins of the modern holiday to indigenous observances dating back thousands of years, and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl (known in English as “The Lady of the Dead”).


The Lady of the Dead is la Catrina.

Many people believe that during the Day of the Dead, it is easier for the souls of the departed to visit the living. People will go to cemeteries to communicate with the souls of the departed, and will build private altars, containing the favorite foods and beverages, and photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls…  

During the period of November 1 and November 2, families usually clean and decorate graves; most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas, or offerings, which often include orange marigolds called “cempasúchitl”…. In modern Mexico this name is often replaced with the term “Flor de Muerto” (“Flower of the Dead”). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings.

Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or little angels), and bottles of tequila, mezcal, pulque or atole for adults. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) or sugar skulls and beverages such as atole. The ofrendas are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the “spiritual essence” of the ofrenda food, so even though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so that the deceased can rest after their long journey…


Some families build small shrines in their homes, and of course, there are shrines in schools, factories, and government offices.

The holiday also has a tradition of writing short poems, called “calaveras”, with or without illustrations. “Calavera” means “skull” and the poem is usually an intimate but mocking epitaph. The custom [may have] started in the 19th century when a newspaper published a poem narrating a dream of a cemetery in the future, “and all of us were dead.”  The poem then revealed what was on the tombstones. Today newspapers dedicate calaveras to public figures and have cartoons of skeletons.

You’ll like this part:

The Mexican calavera, according to Domingo Argüelles, is described as”retaliation against those who would always win while alive.” With a calavera, the most alive are sent to the cemetery; the “most alive” meaning those who think themselves clever, or with a better position than everyone else are still headed to the same place.

The calavera became a journalistic genre at the end of the 19th century during the regime of Portfirio Diaz. The flyers that circulated during those times included angry verses against the dictator Diaz, and his cabinet members.

Calaveras were also dedicated to working class people, always with a hint of sarcasm and humor that we all must die. As stated in a stanza published in a flyer in 1906 by the printer and editor Antonio Vanegas Arroyo:

Is an honest truth

which this phrase says

that only the unborn

will never become a skull

The calaveras were also illustrations, and that tradition is traced to José Guadalupe Posada:

For 40 years, starting in the 1870s, Posada poured out illustrations for newspapers, magazines, broadside ballads, and books, reflecting the world of the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz in a mirror of calaveras. In Posada’s hands, the grinning skulls were a natural for political and social satire. The skeleton in a general’s uniform or in the elaborate flowered hat of a grande dame showed the rich and powerful as nothing more than cloth and bone. If the emperor with no clothes is a revelation of importance stripped of pretension, Posada’s calaveras portrayed power as nothing more than pretense, the dictator as death in a top hat. His images gave us the original empty suits.

Perfect.  Just perfect.  Please enjoy it.


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  1. Thanks for reading.

    • RiaD on November 1, 2008 at 15:42

    excellent explanation, answering many questions i’ve had for years (but never got around to looking up the answers for!)

    • kj on November 1, 2008 at 16:18

    of growing up Catholic (i’m old enough now to look for the benefits, not just the negatives, ha!) was the celebration of All Saint’s and All Soul’s days.

    thanks, David.  as usual, i’m doing my own thing on these two days (and that usually involves something with wind, but the wind came early this year and so last weekend was the communing with wind ceremony (while i barely stayed on two feet!)  LOL  

  2. wooden scenes of skeletons doing mundane things from Mexico. I collect them and my grandaughter when being potty trained was fascinated and delighted by the skeleton on the toilet. She took it to the bathroom where she could see it as she she proudly used the toilet. For some reason I find the dia de los muertos a life affirming holiday. Love the stanza. Thanks for the interesting information.    

    • Robyn on November 1, 2008 at 16:41

  3. Orange

  4. I always welcome learning any and all customs of any culture, whatsoever!  Understanding different cultures and customs enriches us — there is so much to learn always.  And all of this, inevitably, leads to learning about the foods of these cultures and learning to “appreciate” them and the cultures from whence they come.  

    All of these customs and cultures are forms of enrichment for all in the world — just as the many wonderful species of animal life, insects, etc.  

    So, thank you so much for so many different cultural offerings on your part — most welcome!

    • Valtin on November 3, 2008 at 06:51

    Malcolm Lowry’s novel, Under the Volcano, takes place entirely (after its flash-forward first chapter) on El dia de los muertos. No small thing for us fans of both Mexico and Lowry.

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