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El Día de los Muertos - Mexican Day of the Dead
A Celebration of Family Past and Present
El Día de los Muertos or, Day of the Dead, is an ancient Mexican holiday that is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. Even though there are many similarities between El Día de los Muertos and Halloween, this is not the Mexican version of Halloween.
Like Halloween, El Día de los Muertos is a pre-Christian holiday that has been absorbed into the Christian tradition. Originally a pre-Columbian holiday celebrated by Aztecs and other Mexican tribes in honor of the spirits of those who have died, it remains today a holiday honoring the memory of the dead.
With the coming of Christianity, the focus of the day was shifted from native religions to Christianity and the date moved from earlier in the autumn to the first two days in November which happen to be the Catholic holy days of All Saints Day (November when Catholics and Anglicans honor all the Saints) and All Souls Day (November 2nd when Catholics and Anglicans honor all those who have died). This is one of the similarities to Halloween which was also a pre-Christian religious holiday celebrated earlier in the fall and moved to the eve of All Saints Day.
Many Still Observe the Ancient Traditions Associated with this Holiday
Many of the ancient traditions associated with El Día de los Muertos continue to be observed by Indians in rural Mexico today. These include the opening of boxes containing the bones of deceased relatives and cleaning them. Decorating graves, celebrating Mass, praying for the deceased and joyously celebrating family both alive and dead. Like the Celts of ancient Ireland, these people still believe that this is a time when the barriers between this world and the next are removed and the spirits of the deceased can come back and mingle with their living descendants. Thus, it is a day of celebration and joy rather than of sorrow.
Among the Indians of rural Mexico, November 1st celebrates the children who have died and November 2nd the adults who have died.
Among the foods that are specially prepared for this holiday is Pan de Muerto or, bread of the dead which is made with flour, sugar, butter, eggs, orange peel, yeast and anise. The top of the bread is decorated with strips of dough representing bones of the dead and a round ball of dough representing a teardrop. A sugar candy formed in the shape of a skull is also a popular treat that is only made at this time of year. In addition to bread of the dead and the sugar skulls, which are only produced for this holiday, the feasts include other popular Mexican foods.
While the rural native population follows the ancient traditions closely, the urban and more Europeanized citizens of Mexico also join in the festivities but don't generally partake of things like the cleaning of ancestral bones. Pan De Muerto and sugar skulls are very popular and are available in stores and bakeries throughout the country at this time. Going to Mass for All Saints and All Souls Day is popular as well as general celebrating with food, song and dance.
Today, with the increasing Hispanic influence due to immigration and the common border, some of the traditions and celebrations of El Día de los Muertos are making their way to places like Arizona and New Mexico.
Like other holidays El Día de los Muertos continues to evolve and change as it encounters other cultural influences, but, while the outward trappings of the celebration continues to evolve, the core idea of honoring and remembering departed loved ones remains central to the holiday.
Dia de los Muertos in Mesilla, New Mexico
© 2006 Chuck Nugent