Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Day of the Dead
This article is about the Mexican holiday. See also: Day of the Dead (movie)
The Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos in Spanish) is a Mexican and Mexican-American celebration of dead ancestors which occurs on November 1 and November 2 (The Roman Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day).
While it is primarily viewed as a Mexican holiday, it is also celebrated to a lesser extent elsewhere in Latin America.
Despite the morbid subject matter, this holiday is celebrated joyfully, and though it occurs at the same time as Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, the mood of The Day of the Dead is much lighter, with the emphasis on celebrating and honoring the lives of the deceased, rather than fearing evil or malevolant spirits.
Rituals celebrating the lives of dead ancestors had been performed by these Meso-American civilizations for at least 3,000 years. It was common practice to keep skulls as trophies and display them during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
The festival which was to become El Día de los Muertos fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar (approximately the start of August), and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the "Lady of the Dead". The festivities were dedicated to the celebration of children and the lives of dead relatives.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived at what would later be Mexico in the 15th century they were appalled at the indigenous pagan practices, and in an attempt to convert the locals to Catholicism moved the popular festival to the begining of November to coincide with the Catholic holy days of All Saints and All Souls. All Saints Day is the day after Halloween. Halloween was based on the earlier pagan Samhain, the Celtic day and feast of the dead. Celts believed it was possible to see the spirits of their dead relatives on that day. The Celtiberians of Spain practiced it too. Many pagan cultures have a day of the dead. The Spanish combined their Halloween with the Meso-Americans'.
Unlike the Spanish invaders, who feared death, the natives embraced it, and saw death as merely a step in a continuing journey of life.
Beliefs and Customs
Plans for the festival are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods that will be offered to the dead. Wealthier families often build altars in their homes, on which are placed offerings to the deceased. The altars are decorated with ofrendas, or offerings, which may include photographs, food, toys, flowers, candles and other symbolic objects.
Celebrants wear skull shaped masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives.
Sugar skulls, inscribed with the names of the deceased on the forehead, are often eaten by a relative or friend.
People visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with crosses or wreaths of marigolds and candles.
The flowers are thought to attract the souls of the dead toward the offerings on the altars.
Special food for El Día de los Muertos includes Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead), a sweet egg bread made in many shapes, from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits.
Personal items that were dear to the deceased are often placed on the altar to commemorate their lives.
Burning of Copal incense is also an important part of the ritual.
During the period of October 31 and November 2 families usually clean the burial areas up and decorate the graves. Over the year weeds and brush has grown over the graves so families will cut away the excess shrubs and sometimes give the graves a fresh coat of paint.
- The novel Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry takes place in Mexico on this day.
- The 1998 Tim Schafer computer adventure game, Grim Fandango is set on this day in the land of the dead and includes many allusions to the celebration. The intended title for the game was "Deeds of the Dead".
- The climax of the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico is set amidst a parade that day.
- Barbara Hambly's novel Days Of The Dead sets its climax on this day in 1835.
- Brandes, Stanley. “The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National Identity.” Journal of American Folklore 442 (1998) : 359-80.
- Carmichael, Elizabeth. Sayer, Chloe. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Great Britain: The Bath Press, 1991.
- Conklin, Paul. “Death Takes A Holiday.” U.S. Catholic 66 (2001) : 38-41.
- Garcia-Rivera, Alex. “Death Takes a Holiday.” U.S. Catholic 62 (1997) : 50.
- Miller, Carlos. Day of the Dead – History. 1 Nov 2004. < http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/history/ >
- Rowan, Sherry. Delving Deeper: teaching culture as an integral element of second-language learning.” The Clearing House May 2001: 74+.
- Roy, Ann. “A Crack Between the Worlds.” Commonwealth 122 (1995) : 13-16.
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