Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de los Muertos) is a day of celebration for the people of Latin America, particularly Mexico and Central America. It is acknowledged internationally in many other cultures.
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, not a Mexican version of Halloween by the way. The two-day holiday (November 1 and 2) focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have passed, rather than grieve over the loss of the beloved. They choose to commemorate the lives of the dearly departed and welcome the return of their spirits. Thanks to efforts by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, the term “cultural heritage” is not limited to monuments and collections of objects. It also includes living expressions of culture—traditions—passed down from generation to generation and In 2008, UNESCO recognised the importance of Día de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The holiday is called Día de los Muertos. It is particularly celebrated in Mexico where the day is a public holiday. Prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century the celebration took place at the beginning of summer. Gradually it was associated with October 31, November 1 and November 2 to coincide with the Western Christian tradition of Allhallowtide or All Souls' Day. Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favourite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. Visitors also leave possessions of the deceased at the graves.
Since Day of the Dead is a celebration rather than a period of mourning, music and dance are necessary. The types of dancing performed vary regionally. A popular dance that originated from the state of Michoacan is La Danza de los Viejitos (the dance of the little old men). Young men and sometimes boys dress up as old men. They walk out crouched over and holding their backs and then abruptly jump up and start dancing with great enthusiasm. La Danza de los Tecuanes (the dance of the tigers/jaguars) is a colonial dance that illustrates farm workers hunting a jaguar or tiger. Some dancers portray the farm workers while two or three dancers represent the devil and jaguars or tigers.
Altars are the centerpiece of the celebration, also called ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar.
La Calavera Catrina ('Dapper Skeleton', 'Elegant Skull') is a 1910–1913 zinc etching by famous Mexican printmaker, cartoon illustrator and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. The image depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a hat befitting the upper class outfit of a European of her time. Her chapeau en attente is related to European styles of the early 20th century. She is offered as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, Posada felt, were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolution era. She, in particular, has become an icon of the Mexican Día de muertos or Day of the Dead.
The Costumes. Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls, and, mimicking the calavera Catrina, the don suits and fancy dresses. Many revelers wear shells or other noisemakers to amp up the excitement—and also possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.
Papel Picado. You’ve probably seen this beautiful Mexican paper craft plenty of times in stateside Mexican restaurants. The literal translation, pierced paper, perfectly describes how it’s made. Artisans stack colored tissue paper in dozens of layers, then perforate the layers with hammer and chisel points. Papel picado isn’t used exclusively during Day of the Dead, but it plays an important role in the holiday. Draped around altars and in the streets, the art represents the wind and the fragility of life.