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Dia de los Muertos: Honoring Deceased Loved Ones in Mexico

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday honoring the dead that is celebrated on November 1. The Aztec holiday originated in Mexico, but it is celebrated throughout Latin America and in many places in North America.

While the holiday is considered to be on November 1, the celebration is spread over two days (November 1 and 2), and the festivities begin on the evening of October 31. November 1 honors children who have died—Dia de los Inocentes. Children’s graves are decorated in white orchids and baby’s breath. November 2, Dia de los Muertos, honors adults. Their graves are decorated with bright orange marigolds.

The original Aztec holiday was a month long event, but when the Spanish conquistadores turned Mexico Catholic, the holiday became intertwined with All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2).

Dia de los Muertos stems from the idea that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness. The holiday celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities that the dead enjoyed during their lifetimes. Day of the Dead recognizes that death is part of the natural process of life, along with childhood, adulthood, and being a member of community. The dead are considered to wake from their sleep and share in the celebration of Dia de los Muertos with their loved ones.

The calacas and calaveras, or skeletons and skulls, symbolize Dia de los Muertos. The beautiful skulls and skeletons are everywhere during the celebrations in the form of candies, sweets, parade masks, and as dolls. These skulls and skeletons are portrayed as joyful and enjoying life, dressed in fancy clothes.

Families traditionally clean and decorate the graves of loved ones on Dia de los Muertos. Families set up ofrendas, or small, personal altars, that honor one person. They have flowers, candles, food, drinks, photos, and personal mementos of the person being remembered. The altars have a mix of indigenous and Catholic influence. The graves are honored with offerings and vigils as well. Toys and candies are usually laid out for the children, and adult graves are offered food and shots of mezcal. Colorful outdoor markets are set up in advance to sell sugar skulls, special foods, and altar decorations.

Mexico is abundant in sugar production, and Mexicans have mastered the art of sugar art, particularly for religious festivities. Sugar skull art consists of big happy smiles, colorful icing, sparkly tin and glittery adornments. These labor-intensive sugar skulls are traditionally made in small batches in the homes of sugar skull makers, but the talented artisans are disappearing as fabricated and imported candy skulls take their places. It is special to see authentic sugar skulls.

Join Mexicans this November in honoring your deceased loved ones by laying out mementos and enjoying their favorite food and drinks.

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