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Day of the Dead

History
Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.

Altars
The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar. Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the altar. Scattered from altar to gravesite, marigold petals guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar.

Food of the dead
You work up a mighty hunger and thirst traveling from the spirit world back to the realm of the living. At least that’s the traditional belief in Mexico. Some families place their dead loved one’s favorite meal on the altar. Other common offerings:

Common among offerings is pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), , often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolize sorrow.

Sugar skulls are part of a sugar art tradition brought by 17th-century Italian missionaries. Pressed in molds and decorated with crystalline colors, they come in all sizes and levels of complexity.

Costumes
Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls and don suits and fancy dresses to mimic the calavera (skull) called Catrina, who represents the decadence of the wealty just before the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Many revelers wear shells or other noisemakers to amp up the excitement—and also possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.

Adapted from National Geographic