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Cultural Traditions: El Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos image by Posada The observance of El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) dates from pre-Columbian times. It is believed by many that this is the time when those who have passed away are allowed to return to earth to visit with their families and friends. This occasion, on November 1 and 2, ceremonially and festivally honors those who have died, and brings focus to the other aspects of the life cycle: fertility and life for the future.

See more Day of the Dead altars El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico by decorating shop windows, cleaning and decorating the cemetery, creating special fantastic flower wreaths, making small and large toys and figurines featuring the famous calaveras (skulls and skeletons sometimes accompanied by verses), and by installing tianguis (special temporary markets) to sell the necessary items for the ofrendas. Zenpasuchitl, a type of marigold, is the traditional flower of the occasion and altars are often covered with the bright orange petals. The baker, confectioner, cook, florist and artist are essential to the Days of the Dead.

The most important manifestations of this holiday are the ofrendas, or altars made of offerings, created in homes, businesses and public places. The altars honor the dead to assure the continuity of life. In the Mexican tradition, those who are dead provide the necessary connection between the living and God and the Saints.

The preparation for this important celebration begins the last week of October when all is readied for a great feast after the October 31st visit to friends and relatives in the cemetery. Special dishes are cooked for the ofrendas, and are usually offered to both living and dead friends and relatives who visit. The celebration is often called Los Dias de los Muertos because two important days are recognized. November 1, All Saints' Day, is devoted to los angelitos (little children), and November 2, All Souls' Day, to adults.

Click on the Jose Guadalupe Posada image above to see a larger version.

Get more information on Day of the Dead.

Also, see the PBS documentary, Food for the Ancestors.