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What is Día de los Muertos?

Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday rooted in the ancient past of Mesoamerica. The origins of the modern holiday has been traced back hundreds of years to the rituals of the Aztec Indians. Dedicated to the Goddess of Death, Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead), the Aztec ritual honored those who have passed on with great feasts, sacrifice, ritual, dance, and sacred art that depicted their beliefs and customs. In the past, the ritual honoring the deceased was celebrated for the entire month of August, which is the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar.

The Aztecs believed that there were three places where the spirits of the dead rested. The warriors who died in battle went to the paradise of the Sun God. Those who died drowning went to the paradise of the Rain God, Tlaloc, and those who died by natural causes went to Mictlán, the underworld. Mictecacihuatl rules Mictlán along with her husband Mictlantecuhtli. Because Mictecacihuatl is believed to have died at birth, she was designated Lady of the Dead and given the job of watching over their bones.

Ancient indigenous festivities honoring the Dead are believed to date back approximately 3,000 years. The Aztecs were in awe of the eternal cycle of life and death and believed in the need for sacrifice to assure the continuation of life. They were known to keep skulls on display as trophies to symbolize death and rebirth during their rituals. In their attempts to convert the indigenous peoples to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to eradicate the Aztec celebration. Since their efforts failed miserably, they formally moved the celebration to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) also referred to as Día de los Angelitos, meaning “Day of the Little Angels” and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Although much of the ancient indigenous religions were lost, the core aspect of the Day of the Dead was kept. This core consists of the altar with offerings to the dead.

While skulls and skeletons are among the most common images representing death and rebirth in Day of the Dead celebrations, they are certainly not the only representations. The butterfly also holds a special place in the lives of indigenous peoples of the New World. At least two of the many Aztec deities were personifications of butterflies: Lepidoptera Xochiquetzal (“Precious Flower”) and Itzpapalotl (“Obsidian Butterfly). Xochiquetzal, for example, was a mother goddess, a goddess of love, flowers, and fine arts. She was a symbol of beauty, fire, and of the spirits of the Dead. She was seen as the patron goddess of domestic laborers, and of warriors killed in battle. According to legend, Xochiquetzal trailed young warriors into battle and joined with them at their moment of death, clutching a butterfly between her lips!

In modern times, the monarch butterfly migration coincidentally occurs at the same time as Day of the Dead festivities. Monarch butterflies travel thousands of miles from the United States and Canada to central México where they nest for the winter months. The gorgeous, brightly colored personifications of transformation can be seen flying through the graveyards in the Mexican state of Michoacán. It is believed by the Purépecha Indians that each butterfly contains the soul of a loved one who has returned. As they arrive in the graveyards, they are greeted with enthusiasm and celebration.

As in the past, the modern Day of the Dead celebrations are presided over by Mictecacihuatl, although today she is known as Santa Muerte. However, the festival is celebrated differently depending on the region in which it is celebrated. For example, in some places people wear shells on their clothing so that when they dance, the rattling of the shells will wake up the Dead. In other places, people will dress like those who have passed on, even wearing some of the deceased’s clothing.

Common elements of Day of the Dead celebrations include people donning costumes of devils, skeletons, Death, and widows. Parading through the streets celebrating the souls of the departed or as if walking in a mock funeral is another similarity. Many people visit the graves of loved ones and many people build shrines in their homes to honor the dearly departed.

In Mesa, Arizona, the holiday has attracted people from different cultures who all have one thing in common: ancestor reverence. Native Americans and African Americans have begun to join in and perform their own cultural dances as an expression of honoring the Dead.

*This article is an excerpt from Day of the Dead Handbook by Denise Alvarado.

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