Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a world-renowned Mexican holiday, famous for its bright and colorful traditions. While you may think you know about Dia de Muertos, there are probably some Day of the Dead facts and traditions that surprise you or that you don’t know the meanings of. Day of the Dead traditions range from decorations, to food, to activities that encourage families to remember the lives of their loved ones. Understanding Day of the Dead history and traditions will give you a better appreciation for Mexican culture.
The cornerstone of the Day of the Dead traditions is the altar, which dates back to the Aztec empire, when families would remember the spirits of their ancestors at the beginning of each summer. They believed the spirit world wasn’t that far from ours and their ancestral spirits could return during this time to give guidance and comfort. While Catholicism came to Mexico and changed the date to align with All Saints’ Day, the tradition of building altars continues as families place a photo of their loved one on the top of the altar and specific items on the tiers below. Two Day of the Dead facts pertaining to altars is that water is placed on the altar to represent the essence of life and candles are placed to symbolize faith. Around these items, the person’s favorite foods and drinks are placed, and marigold flowers are scattered, their bright color guiding the spirits of the dead back as their families remember them.
Sugar skulls are incredibly sweet treats made from molded sugar and decorated with colorful frosting. While sugar skulls have become a popular image of Dia de Muertos, they only date back to the 1600s, when, according to Day of the Dead history, Italian missionaries came to Mexico and taught them the art of sugar decorating. Since many families then lacked money for decorations but had plenty of natural sugar from their farms, sugar skulls became a widely used decoration and are still placed on altars during this Mexican holiday. Today, they are adorned with colored sugar, beads, and feathers, and the name of a departed loved one is often written on top of the skull.
Over the charming streets of Mexico, bright papel picado sways in the street. Similar to Chinese paper cutting, papel picado is a traditional folk art of cutting elaborate designs into colored squares of tissue paper. The designs range from a city’s name to cartoon figures or complex abstract designs. Day of the Dead traditions include decorating streets and homes with series of bright papel picado strung together. While you can usually find them throughout the year, they are especially abundant during Day of the Dead festivities. One of the Day of the Dead facts concerning this decorative art is that papel picado represents the fragility yet beauty of life.
Much deeper than the decorations and sweet Day of the Dead treats is the true meaning of this Mexican holiday. The Day of the Dead history is based in remembering loved ones who have passed away and carrying on their stories. Just as the Aztecs practiced, Mexican families use this as a time to come together in celebration of those who have already passed away. As families prepare altars, clean up grave sites, and enjoy traditional Dia de Muertos treats, they share memories and smile at stories that recall the best of their families’ histories. They remember all that their loved ones cherished and all the joy that they shared. By doing so, they feel the presence of their departed family and the closeness of those still alive.
Just like any other holiday around the world, Day of the Dead is based in traditions that generations have passed down to the next for centuries. Since the ancient Aztecs, Mexican culture has valued family and memories. Through these traditions, families in Mexico celebrate the love of family and the joy of life.