On November 1st and 2nd, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans celebrate a venerated holiday teeming with tradition, symbolism, spirits (of the deceased and the distilled variety) and food: Día de los Muertos. In the United States, the day has become synonymous with Halloween and calaveras, but the rich history of the holiday extends far beyond those kitschy, consumerized sugar skulls sold at Urban Outfitters.
Before you celebrate later this month, learn a little bit about the holiday and what it represents:
1. It's a celebratation: Mexicans have a special relationship with the deceased, and Día de los Muertos is the day to celebrate those dead loved ones. Families and friends bring booze, food and decorations to grave sites, or they create elaborate, stunning ofrendas in tribute to the deceased. It's not a time for mourning, but a time for generous jubilation at the rememberance of their lives.
Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz perfectly summarized Mexican's relationship with los muertos in an oft-highlighted quotation from his novel Labryinth of Solitude: "The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love."
2. It has roots in Aztec tradition: The origins of Day of the Dead are believed to date back to the Aztecs, who ritually and regularly offered gifts to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Lady of the Dead. These celebrations joined with Spanish Catholic's celebrations of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, which fall on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2.
3. It's a venerated, esteemed celebration — not a commercial holiday: Despite its recent surge in "trendiness", Día de los Muertos remains revered in Mexico. UNESCO even established Día de los Muertos as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity."
4. Those calaveras have a unique history: José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist, became known for his use of calaveras in his satirical illustrations. After his death, those calaveras, or skeletons, became closely associated with the Day of the Dead. Posada famously etched "La Calavera Catrina," an image of a skeleton dressed in an overwhelming, flower-adorned hat. La Catrina, originally meant as a satire of Mexican natives adopting European traditions, became a symbol of the Day of the Dead.
5. The Monarch butterflies have become a symbol of the holiday: Each year, Monarch butterflies make a migration from Eastern Canada to Western Central Mexico in search of warmer climates (and who can blame them?). They spend their winter in hibernation in the Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca in Michoacan. The arrival coincides with Día de Los Muertos, and some believe that Monarch butterflies carry the souls of the deceased returning to earth.
6. The decorations on the ofrendas and graves have special meaning: Relatives typically adorn altars and graves with several symbolic items: pictures of the deceased, candles, papel picado, marigolds, sugar skulls, pan de muertos, glasses of water, and a myriad of items, drinks and foods beloved by the deceased person in life. Some view Día de los Muertos as the one day of the year that the dead return to earth; so, naturaly, you must prepare to greet them with their favorite dishes and spirits. ¡Salud!