An illustrated guide to the indigenous holiday to remember loved ones

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The Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is often confused as the “Mexican Halloween” because of its use of skeletons and when the holiday is celebrated Nov. 1 to Nov. 2. It’s actually an indigenous holiday that originated in southern Mexico and celebrates the remembrance of family members and friends who have died.

“Halloween has nothing to do with ancestors,” said Stanley Brandes, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Day of the Dead has everything to do with deceased relatives. That’s the basis of it.” 

Popular Day of the Dead imagery such as face painting and colorful paper flowers shows up in late October. But do you know the elements that make up an ofrenda, the traditional altar, or what sugar skulls mean during Dia de los Muertos?

From traditional altar items to what foods are used to celebrate the Day of the Dead, primarily in Mexico, Central America and the United States, read on to learn more about this holiday.

Flowers, food, altars and music are an essential part of the festivities. Family members clean and decorate the gravesites of loved ones with skulls, garlands, candles and marigold flowers. Foods such as sugar skulls, sweetbread rolls and drinks are placed alongside clay decorations and personal items on ofrendas, or home altars, to memorialize those who have died. Family members believe their loved ones will feast on the “essence” of the foods from the altars – either a table at home or on the grave itself.

Items found on ofrendas

Ofrendas have a variety of symbols and items that are reminders of those who have died. Here are a few items that can be found on Dia de los Muertos alters.

Colorful garlands and marigold flowers

Garlands made of paper and flowers are hung along streets and homes. Bright orange marigold flowers, also referred to as “flowers of the dead,” are believed to help attract souls of loved ones to ofrendas by their scent.

How skulls are linked to Dia de los Muertos

The most recognizable symbols of Dia de los Muertos are the skeletons. Today, people dress up in elaborate outfits with skull faces. Skeletons are a playful symbol of life after death.

In 1910, La Calavera Catrina, meaning “elegant skull,” was featured as a skeletal figure in a fancy dress and became one of the many prominent symbols of the Day of the Dead. Her figure was first created by satirical cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada in Mexico. It’s meant as a mocking symbol to those seeking political and social status: Underneath it all, humans are all the same – a bundle of bones.

Mictlán: The underworld of indigenous mythology

The underworld of indigenous mythology was thought to be divided into nine regions, depending on how the deceased died. The spirits would travel from the alternate afterlives and the mortal world. Within the Mesoamerican region, it is believed a dog guides the deceased across a river of water into the afterlife.

Alebrijes: Spirit animals of the underworld

Colorful mystical creatures called Alebrijes were introduced to the holiday in the 1936 by artist Pedro Linares in Mexico City. With exaggerated bodies with stripes and dots, they are considered creatures from our dreams and spirit guides. They are typically made of wood or papier-mache.

Indigenous mythology influences

Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead, and Mictecacihuatl, his wife and the goddess of death, rule the underworld of Mictlán. She is the protector of the departed, helping them into their next stages.

Migration of a celebration

Because of the lack of Mesoamerican influence in the northern regions of Mexico, the Day of the Dead was not celebrated throughout the country. During the early 21st century, the celebrations began to expand from the southernmost regions of Mexico and became the national holiday it is today.

Contributing: William Cummings, USA TODAY

SOURCE dayofthedead.holiday/history; britannica.com; blog.xcaret.com and USA TODAY research

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