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Dia de Los Muertos – Celebrating the Rich Traditions of the Holiday

Mictecacihuatl - Dia de Los Muertos - Celebrating the Rich Traditions of the Holiday

Origin of Dia de Los Muertos

This Mexican holiday is celebrated throughout Mexico and by people of Mexican ancestry living throughout the United States and other countries.  The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember their loved ones who have passed, and to help support their spiritual journey in the afterlife.  The holiday’s origins can be traced back to more pagan roots – with the observances dating back hundreds of years to the Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Queen of the Underworld).  Her role was to watch over the bones of the dead and preside over the ancient festivals of the dead.  It is believed that she was born, and then sacrificed as an infant, and is often depicted with her jaws open to swallow the stars during the day.


Dia de Los Muertos Traditions

Mictecacihuatl - Dia de Los Muertos - Celebrating the Rich Traditions of the Holiday

It is interesting that the Halloween tradition of wearing costumes and masks going door to door for treats can likely be traced back to the Dia de Los Muertos tradition, and its close cousin, Samhain.  The traditions have their roots based in paganism and a celebration of harvest, life and ultimately death and the afterlife.  Wearing a mask, for example, was thought to cause the wandering spirits to assume that the living were spirits too, and would not do them harm.  Traditional games of bobbing for apples and collecting hazelnuts also originated in divination games during Samhain.

This celebration used to take place in the beginning of summer, however, to more closely coincide with the similar tradition of Allhallowtide:  All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.  It was made a national holiday in Mexico in the 1960’s.

The traditions connected with this celebration include ofrendas (private altars in the home), honoring the dead with treats, flowers (marigolds, traditionally), and favorite food and drink of their departed loved ones.  A cemetery visit complete with gifts and flowers is also a big part of the tradition.  The Spanish tradition also includes festivals and parades.


The Celebration

Altar Mictecacihuatl - Dia de Los Muertos - Celebrating the Rich Traditions of the Holiday

The three-day celebration includes:  On October 31st – the children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit, November 1 is for inviting the adult spirits to visit.  November 2 is the day when families go the cemetery to speak, pray, and recite poems and anecdotes about their deceased loved ones.

In the United States, there are many many Day of the Dead celebrations in many different cities.  The All Souls Procession in Tucson, Arizona (est. 1990) is a huge event, combining elements of the traditional Day of the Dead celebration with those of pagan harvest festivals.  People are dressed with traditional colors, and often wear masks or paint their faces in the “Sugar Skull” style, which has become associated with the tradition.  A parade is held in Missoula, Montana; in Boston, the performance group La Pinata sponsors a festival bringing offerings of flowers, photos, mementos and food to a colorfully decorated altar.  Santa Ana, California claims the largest event in Southern California honoring Dia De Muertos, called the annual Noche de Altares, which began in 2002.

It is interesting that the Halloween tradition of wearing costumes and masks going door to door for treats can likely be traced back to the Dia de Los Muertos tradition, and it’s close cousin, Samhain.  The traditions have their roots based in paganism and a celebration of harvest, life and ultimately death and the afterlife.  Wearing a mask for example, was thought to cause the wandering spirits to assume that the living were spirits too, and would not do them harm.  Traditional games of bobbing for apples and collecting hazelnuts also originated in divination games during Samhain.

Day of the Dead - Dia de Los Muertos - Celebrating the Rich Traditions of the Holiday

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