In recent years, the holiday known as Día de los muertos, or Día de muertos (Day of the Dead), which is most typically celebrated on November 1st and 2nd but sometimes also on October 31st and/or November 6th, has gained considerable popularity. The 2017 release of Coco, a Pixar animated film inspired by this tradition, has likely consolidated this originally Mexican holiday's spot in mainstream culture far beyond its birthplace. Let's learn more about this unique festivity.
Scholars continue to debate whether Día de los muertos dates back to pre-Hispanic civilizations like the Aztecs, Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mayas or is an adaptation of Catholic and pagan traditions brought in during the Conquest. Likely merging the two, this festivity meant to honor the dead has religious undertones but has also evolved into an important secular holiday with distinctive practices that are shared across the country. As Don Salo, an artisan from Yucatan, tells us, there are also many regional variations:
Aquí se le llama Janal Pixan.
Here it's called Janal Pixan.
En maya es "comida para difuntos".
In Mayan means "food for the deceased."
Captions 67-68, Yabla en Yucatán - Don SaloPlay Caption
As Adriana shares with us in the following clip, Día de los muertos aims not to mourn, but rather to remember and honor, family members and friends who have passed away:
La celebridad del Día de los Muertos, más que celebrar la muerte, es celebrar el recuerdo de nuestros santos difuntos,
The fame of the Day of the Dead, rather than celebrating death, it's to celebrate the memory of our saintly departed
Captions 40-42, Hispanoamericanos en Berlín Adriana y la fiesta de los muertos - Part 1Play Caption
There are many ways to do this. One is by preparing a deceased person's favorite dishes:
Y la manera de honrarlos es, eh... haciendo sus platillos favoritos,
And the way to honor them is, um... making their favorite dishes,
Caption 16, Tatiana y su cocina ChilaquilesPlay Caption
Another is by building an altar de muertos (altar to the dead) or ofrenda de muertos (offering to the dead) in one's home. Such altars might include skulls (calaveras) made of sugar and meringue, marigold flowers known by their Aztec name cempazúchitl, candles (velas), the "bread of the dead" (pan de muerto), salt (sal), water, traditional food and beverages, and papel picado (decorative pierced paper), which Meli teaches us to make:
tengo tips super fáciles para decorar tu altar de muertos o tu casa. Vamos a hacer papel picado con dos diseños,
I have super easy tips to decorate your altar to the dead or your home. We are going to make "papel picado" with two designs,
Captions 7-8, Manos a la obra Papel picado para Día de muertosPlay Caption
Meli additionally teaches us how to make squishy calaveritas (sugar skulls) and explains to us yet another Day of the Dead tradition: spending the night at the cemetery:
En algunos lugares de México, las personas pasan parte de la noche en el panteón.
In some places in Mexico, people spend part of the night at the cemetery.
Captions 60-61, Manos a la obra Papel picado para Día de muertosPlay Caption
While gifts for the departed in the form of the aforementioned items are often left at friends and family members' graves, Día de los muertos is not solely focused on the dead, as giving gifts such as candy sugar skulls and sharing pan de muerto and other festive food and beverages with living friends and family members is common practice. Some additionally pen light-hearted verses in the form of mock epitaphs for their friends and family, a literary genre known as calaveras literarias (literary skulls).
Día de los muertos continues to gain popularity outside of Mexico as well, particularly in areas with large Mexican immigrant populations as Adriana, a Mexican woman living in Berlin, explains:
lo que me vincula muy fuertemente a mi tierra es una festividad que se celebra aquí en Berlín hace más de treinta años.
what ties me very strongly to my land is a festivity that has been celebrated here in Berlin for more than thirty years.
Captions 30-33, Hispanoamericanos en Berlín Adriana y la fiesta de los muertos - Part 1Play Caption
Día de los muertos is also important in many other Spanish-speaking countries, each with its own version. According to Julia, in Ecuador, people customarily drink colada de mora (blackberry smoothie) for Día de los muertos:
...y que en Ecuador y en otros países se la toma
...and that in Ecuador and in other countries is consumed
el dos de noviembre de todos los años, el Día de los Muertos.
on November second every year, the Day of the Dead.
Captions 52-53, Otavalo - Conozcamos el Mundo de las Frutas con JuliaPlay Caption
That said, in spite of such regional nuances, the goal of all Día de muertos celebrations is not to forget our grief, but remember to also happily celebrate life:
Pero metámosle también este otro poco de... de recuerdo, de memoria, de alegría, y honremos a los que ya se fueron celebrando nuestra propia vida.
But let's add to it as well this other bit of... of recollection, of memory, of happiness, and let's honor those who already departed by celebrating our own lives.
Captions 50-51, Tatiana y su cocina ChilaquilesPlay Caption
Do you know about any additional Día de los muertos traditions? Write us and let us know!