Día de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead, celebrated on the days of Nov. 1 and 2 is a tradition that began as far back as 2,500 years ago, beginning with the Aztec’s. The “pagan” rituals during the celebration were absorbed and intertwined with the traditional Catholic rituals for All Saints Day, on Nov. 1 and All Souls Days on Nov. 2 when the Spaniards conquered the new world.
Dia de los Muertos is a blend of both old and new worlds and a testament of how a conqueror did not truly rid a culture of its religious ceremonies and beliefs.
To the Aztecs, life was learning to embrace duality, including life and death, and the importance of remembering and honoring the ancestors was sacred to the society. They believed there was a complementary relationship between life and death—that each was a different phase of existence.
Tradition holds that the dead would be insulted by mourning, as they are considered part of the community, so the holiday celebrates life with humorous treats and festivities.
“The Mexican view of death is very different from the American’s view of death,” said Professor Lisa Martinez, Washburn University Spanish teacher. “Dia Day Los Muertos is when souls return every year. Death is a continuation of the circle of life. They believe that the soul keeps on living. They say that basically you are always alive as long as someone remembers you.”
This is not a morbid kind of visitation from departed relatives, but one of remembrance and honor. “Dia de Los Muertos is really memorial day,” said Martinez.
The Day of the Dead is a time when the veil between the two worlds of life and death is thought to be thin and the souls of the departed can come to share time with family and friends. Ofrendas, or home altars, are created in honor of the dead relatives. Cherished belongings from the past are placed in and around the ofrenda which also has a faith oriented component, with prayers, crucifixes, images of Jesus and of saints that take up a large part of the celebration.
Favorite foods, drinks, belongings, pictures of the deceased and even things like a beloved toy or a preferred pack of cigarettes are set out for the souls to smell touch or taste, but not to eat or imbibe.
Marigolds often line the path to the doors of homes. These help the souls to not only find their way home but to feel at home while they are visiting. Ofrendas are more in use in the U.S., while in Mexico, citizens clean and decorate the gravesite and party there throughout the night.
Skulls and skeletons (calacas and calaveras) are a favorite part of the celebration. With the name of the departed written on the forehead, a skull is placed in an ofrenda or on a grave to honor a spirits return.
The elaborate folk art seen in the decorations of skulls and skeletal masks and dolls are also seen in candies and painted on faces or as a giant puppet in a parade. They are also painted on boxes and other objects and adorned with elaborate clothing depicting whimsical situations.
The skull was of particular importance to the Aztecs as a reminder of life and death. Mexico is known for its celebration during this time with sugar skulls. Rich in sugar production, but too poor to purchase European church ornamentations, artisans in Mexico learned to make sugar art for their religious festivals long ago. Sugar skulls have been traced back more than 300 years.
Dia De Los Muertos is not new by any means in the state of Kansas. Portions of Kansas were a part of Spain and Mexico from the 1500’s and until the end of the Mexican-American war in 1848.
Day of the Dead is not Halloween, though it happens to follow on the heels of it. It is celebrated throughout Latin America, and in many places throughout the world. It is gaining more recognition and acceptance in the U.S. with the large and growing population and the changing traditions among many Americans. It is a startling reminder of a celebration unvanquished by a conqueror, resurrecting itself in the new world.