The Day of The Dead

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The Day of The Dead

Sarah Shawver, Writer

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The “Day of the Dead” celebration, otherwise known as “Dia De Los Muertos” is an important holiday in Mexican culture, and it is more than just sugar skulls and face paint. Even though the holiday is celebrated near Halloween, it is a celebration meant to honor the dead, and to remember your ancestors that came before you. Even though the holiday is marked as “Day of the Dead,” it is actually three days, beginning on October 31st and ending on November 2nd. November 1st is recognized during the celebration as “Dia de los Inocentes”, a day dedicated to celebrating and remembering the life of young souls. During this time, altars are completed, sugar skulls or ofrendas (offers) are added such as food and drinks, and gravesites are heavily visited during this time. 

Ancestral Altars

Altars seem to be a large part of Latin American culture in general, as ancestral altars are also common in the Dominican Republic, although they do not specifically celebrate the “Day of the Dead”. Altars created for “Day of the Dead” usually include ancestral photos, religious artworks, hot chocolate, figures, and, of course, sugar skulls are usually just some of the key components that make up an Ancestral Altar. There are usually two types of altars, one for older family members, and those that exist for children who died far too young, who are also known as “Los Inocentes.” Their altars usually contain more child-like items, such as hot chocolate or candy, while older altars may contain alcoholic drinks. “Day of the Dead” bread, or “pan de muertos” may seem simple, but it is one of the more important aspects of an altar.

Perhaps the most important part of an ancestral altar are the photos and the different levels that accompany the altars. Ancestral photos are pretty much necessary in order to remember and celebrate their dead relatives every year. The differing “levels” that accompany ancestral altars are symbolic of heaven and earth, and sometimes purgatory (a place between heaven and hell). The most common religious offerings included in altars are usually depictions of the Virgin Mary due to the Catholic faith, as well as crosses. Other religious items such as small prayer candles may be included as well. 

Ancestral altars are an important piece and a key feature to celebrate the “Day of the Dead”. They are really the key and main feature of remembering your ancestors, as well as making sure their spirits do not disappear, according to some beliefs. 

Sugar Skulls

Sugar skulls are one of the most popular elements of the holiday.  They are more widely known, but they are also an outstanding part of the celebration, and a highly important element that accompanies the altars. Sugar skulls actually originated from pre-Spanish colonial times, as they were an important part of the Aztec culture. Smaller skulls are usually implemented into extravagant altars on November 1st, to represent the souls of children, while the larger skulls that replace them on November 2nd are used for adults. 

Core Beliefs

Ancestral Altars are used to invite back the spirits of loved ones who have passed on, and they usually visit from October 31st to November 1st, while the graves of the deceased are usually visited on November 2nd. The holiday along with its practices and beliefs are a combination of ancient Native American and Christian beliefs. Aztec beliefs centered around souls crossing over to the land of Mictlan, where they finally found rest, yet they still found time to come back and visit their living relatives, which was the reason for ancestral altars. 

Who celebrates “Day of the Dead”?

The “Day of the Dead” is most widely celebrated in Mexico due to it’s Aztec roots, even though the Catholic church also implemented aspects of the holiday, included it with “All Hallow’s Eve”. It is mostly celebrated in the southern and central regions of the country. Those who descend from Mexican ancestry also may celebrate the holiday elsewhere- most popularly in the southern United States, in cities such as San Antonio and Corpus Christi. 

Representation in Modern Culture

Perhaps the most popular movie to explain the holiday, would be Coco. Coco is a 2017 Disney/Pixar film that follows the story of a young boy named Miguel. The film teaches the basic aspects of the holiday, and the importance of your ancestors. While it does teach important aspects and the heart of “Day of the Dead”, it also follows Miguel on his adventure throughout the “Land of the Dead” to follow his dreams and to meet his ancestors. 

The “Book of Life” is also another animated movie that is based around the holidays. While some may argue about the similarities of the two animated films, they both try to teach the true meaning of the holiday. The toy maker, Mattel has also released two variations of a “Day of the Dead” doll. One for their Monster High toyline, and one for their Barbie special collectors’ edition.

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