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Discovering Día de Muertos

What are the origins of Día de Muertos? Come along to Cozumel, Mexico, to find out.

In recent years, I’ve noticed an increasing integration of elements from Día de Muertos into American Halloween decorations. I’ve been aiming to understand the real meaning behind the holiday versus the cool fad. Most of us know that Día de Muertos is a Mexican holiday, but where did it come from? How did it originate? What are the traditions that surround this holiday? I’ve always been intrigued by these questions. During one of my visits to Cozumel, Mexico, I talked to local families about the traditions surrounding this celebration.

Día de Muertos is a time to gather together with family and friends to pray for and remember our beloved deceased, and by doing this, to help support their spiritual journey. It’s celebrated Nov 1-2, and coincides with the Christian holiday, All Saints’ Day.

To prepare for the Day of the Dead, families build an ofrendas, or private altar. They decorate the altar with the foods and beverages that their loved ones favored, along with pan de muertos (bread of the dead), sugar skulls, marigold flowers, and incense. There are also cardboard skeletons, tissue paper decorations, fruit and nuts, and other traditional foods and decorations.

The Marigold flower, or flor de muertos (flower of the dead), is native to Mexico and was used by the Aztecs for medicinal, ceremonial, and decorative purposes. These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings, so that the souls will hear the prayers and utterances of the living that are directed at them.

The family to whom I spoke told me they lay out pictures or figures that resemble their deceased, along with a mirror, so that when the dead return, they can freshen up after their long journey. Many families also include blankets and pillows so that the deceased can rest!

The ofrendas left out in the homes are a gesture of welcome for the deceased. Some people believe that the spirits of the dead eat the "spiritual essence" of the ofrendas, so while celebrants do eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value.

The festival that eventually developed into the modern holiday originally lasted a full month. The celebration featured the Aztec goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead,” whose job it was to watch over the bones of the dead.

The well-known female skeleton figure we know today was derived from an early 20th-century etching created by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. Posada’s La Calavera Catrina (Elegant Skull) was a satirical work intended to highlight socioeconomic disparities in its parody of an upper-class Mexican woman dressed as a European. The striking image of a costumed female with a skeleton face eventually became associated with the Day of the Dead, and Catrina figures are a prominent part of modern observance.

After spending time with the celebrating family, I've decided to incorporate Day of the Dead remembrances into my own family’s celebrations. It is a time to recall the memories that we have of our beloved departed. We can also share the life lessons that we learned from those who have passed, long after they’ve gone.

¡Feliz Día de Muertos!

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