About Dia de los Muertos
What do sugar skulls, marigolds and monarch butterflies have in common? Just like pumpkins, witches and black cats are quintessential symbols of Halloween, these objects are associated with a different holiday: Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Here are five things you should know about Dia de los Muertos:
1. It’s not the same as Halloween
While Halloween is celebrated October 31, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated right after, on Nov. 2.
2. It originated in Mexico and Central America
Dia de los Muertos originated in ancient Mesoamerica (Mexico and northern Central America) where indigenous groups, including Aztec, Maya and Toltec, had specific times when they commemorated their loved ones who had passed away. Certain months were dedicated to remembering the departed, based on whether the deceased was an adult or a child. After the arrival of the Spanish, this ritual of commemorating the dead was intertwined with two Spanish holidays: All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Soul’s Day (Nov. 2). Dia de los Muertos is often celebrated on November 1 as a day to remember children who have passed away, and on November 2 to honor adults.
3. It’s a celebration of life, not death
Ancient Mesoamericans believed that death was part of the journey of life. Rather than death ending life, they believed that new life came from death. Dia de los Muertos is an opportunity to remember and celebrate the lives of departed loved ones. Like any other celebration, Dia de los Muertos is filled with music and dancing.
4. The ofrenda is a central component
The ofrenda is often the most recognized symbol of Dia de los Muertos. This temporary altar is a way for families to honor their loved ones and provide them what they need on their journey. They place down pictures of the deceased, along with items that belonged to them and objects that serve as a reminder of their lives.
Every ofrenda also includes the four elements: water, wind, earth and fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst. Papel picado, or traditional paper banners, represent the wind. Earth is represented by food, especially bread. Candles are often left in the form of a cross to represent the cardinal directions, so the spirits can find their way.
5. Flowers, butterflies and skulls are typically used as symbols
The marigold flower is often placed on ofrendas. With their strong scent and vibrant color the petals are used to make a path that leads the spirits from the cemetery to their families’ homes.
Monarch butterflies play a role in Dia de los Muertos because they are believed to hold the spirits of the departed. This belief stems from the fact that the first monarchs arrive in Mexico for the winter each fall on November 1, which coincides with Dia de los Muertos.
Calaveritas de azucar, or sugar skulls, along with toys, are left on the altars for children who have passed. The skull is used not as morbid symbol but rather as a whimsical reminder of the cyclicality of life, which is why they are brightly decorated.