Everything you need to know about Dia de Los Muertos traditions

The theme of Dia de Los Muertos may be death but the festivities are anything but doom and gloom. This holiday is represented by bright colors, flowers, arts, food, and most importantly remembering those that are no longer here with us. Day of the Dead is a two-day celebration (November 1st& 2nd) with festivities starting the evening of October 31st. On these two days is when the souls of the dead can return to earth to be with the living.  

Dia de los muertos traditions: The Origin

Celebrating the deceased dates back thousands of years to the Aztecs and other Latin American cultures. The Mesoamerican cultures believed that mourning death was disrespectful; according to their beliefs death was just another part of the life cycle and a new beginning for the deceased. In the ninth month of the Aztec calendar (early August) the Aztecs celebrated the deceased and worshiped Mictecacíhuatl, ”lady of the dead” in hopes for her help within the realms of the afterlife. Today, Santa Muerte (the lady of holy death in folk Catholicism) is similarly worshiped for protection and safe delivery to the afterlife.

When the Spaniards began converting the indigenous people to Catholicism in the 1500s, Day of the Dead celebrations was moved from the month of August to align with All Saint’s Day in November so traditions could be carried on. Now the celebration is a blend of both Catholic & Mesoamerican traditions with November 1stbeing dedicated to the souls of the children lost, and the 2ndfor adults.

Dia de los muertos traditions: The Afterlife

The Aztecs believed that the way one died was associated with where they would end up in the afterlife. There are 13 different heavens according to Mesoamerican mythology, some of the better known are:

  • Omeyacan: those who died in combat or while giving birth, Omeyacan was the highest honor of the 13 heavens.
  • Tialocan: Those who died from water (drowning or sacrificed to the rain gods), diseases caused by water, or being struck by lightning. Tialocan was said to be a beautiful paradise where it was spring all the time.
  • Mictlan: Location for those who died of natural causes. The majority were thought to reside here in the afterlife. Within Mictlan it was said you had to pass through ninedimensions. This journey would take four years to complete and find the way to Chicunamictlan, the darkest corner of the underworld where the soul could finally be at rest.

Dogs played a huge role in both Aztec and Mayan culture. Dogs were believed to guide the souls of the dead through the afterlife to their final destination. Specifically, the Xoloitzcuintli breed (also the dog depicted in Pixar’s Coco). Xolo’s were seen as a healer to the Aztecs. With a higher body temperature than humans they were used as heat blankets and would often comfort the ill. It was said that if a man treated a dog poorly in present life they would not be able to cross the river within the first dimension of the afterlife, remaining alone for eternity. Xolo’s are viewed highly in Mexican culture, they’re extremely intelligent and loyal dogs. Many Xolo owners are also huge fans of the fact that they’re almost completely hairless, making this dog easy to clean up after and a great choice for those with allergies.

Dia de los muertos traditions: flor de muertos

Cempasúchil, (known as Marigolds in English) are a very symbolic flower throughout Mexican culture, you’ll notice most ofrendas are decorated with hundreds of them because the floral scent is said to guide the deceased to their offerings. The name is derived from the Nahautl language and means “flower with twenty petals.” The bright flower is native to Mexico and Central America and can sprout over a meter high! Cempasúchilare in full bloom after the rainy season, making the end of October the perfect time to find beautiful bouquets of orange and yellow all throughout Mexico. Cempasúchilalso have healing purposes that were used widely in indigenous medicine. Tea made with the petals and stems is said to help with stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and intestinal parasites.  

Dia de los muertos traditions: the ofrenda

dia de los muertos traditions

The ofrenda (“offering” in Spanish) is a table of gifts to the deceased, it may be found in a family’s home, at a gravesite, or both. The ofrenda usually has multiple tiers and an arch above, this represents the portal from the underworld. On the table will be:  

  • Favorite food and drinks of the loved one
  • Favorite toys if it’s a child
  • Pan de Muertos (a sugary pastry), represents soil and bones
  • Candles to light the way for the soul find their destiny
  • Papel Picado represent the wind and the fragile link between life and death
  • Salt cleanses the spirit and purifies the soul
  • Alcohol to toast the arrivals. Pulque, a spirit made from agave is common, or Tequila made from agave azul.
  • Copal and incense to ward off evil spirits
  • Dog sculptures to guide the way
  • Marigolds for their scent or may also represent the sun

Dia de los muertos traditions: calaveras/ sugar skulls

Calaveras, representations of human skulls remind us that death is always present. Calaveras may be displayed as decorative art or made with cane sugar and colored with icing. In the 20thcentury Calaveras became famous in Latin American art by artist Jose Guadalupe Posadawhen he created Catrina. The original Catrina was created alongside a satire piece in a newspaper. The article was written about Mexican natives ashamed of their indigenous culture, who were imitating European fashion; although we all look the same in the end. La Calavera Catrina is widely seen as the symbol of Dia de los Muertos today.   

Dia de los muertos traditions: Tapetes de aserrín (Dyed Sawdust Carpets)

dia de los muertos traditions

The carpets than others, are also seen widely throughout Central America. Tapetes de aserrín are made by dying sawdust, filling handmade stencils with different colors, then misting the design with water to let it set. Today a lot of artists prefer to use biodegradable materials like grass, sand, and flower petals instead of sawdust.   In 2003 UNESECO distinguished Dia de los Muertos as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage list because of the cultural wealth in this tradition.  

“Day of the Dead celebrates life, its fragility, its complexity but, at its core, it is a celebration of hope for humanity.”

Oscar Torres-Reyna