Day of the Dead is sometimes referred to as the “Mexican Halloween,” but the focus of the two holidays is different. With its emphasis on remembering and honoring the dead, Dia de Muertos is in some ways more similar to the American observance of Memorial Day or the Catholic tradition of All Souls Day.
The traditions date back to native cultures and over the centuries have become intermingled with European and Christian beliefs. Today, Day of the Dead is celebrated with family — a time to reunite the living and the dead. Although the details differ in various cultures, the basic premise is that the spirits of the dead return for a brief period, usually between the evenings of October 31 – November 2. Their souls are not feared, but greatly anticipated and warmly welcomed. In fact, many Latin Americans would rather joke about death than fear it.
Delicious feasts are prepared in honor of the dead. Family members receive the souls first at home, offering food and drink on an altar, or ofrenda, and later commune with them beside their graves at all-night vigils.
The marigold, with its strong aroma, is the traditional flower of the dead used to attract the souls and help them find their way home. You will find them arranged on altars and graves and scattered along paths to guide the spirits.
I have collected some of the popular folk art inspired by this tradition featuring grinning skulls and dancing skeletons. I also get a kick out of a more particularly Guatemalan character, named Maximon. He is an irreverent “saint,” of sorts usually depicted in effigy with no arms and smoking a pipe
Another Guatemalan tradition in certain regions is a Day of the Dead Kite Festival. The vibrantly colored designs on the kites, made of cloth and paper with bamboo frames, depict religious or folkloric themes and they are flown in the cemeteries to honor departed family members.
Combining reverence for the dead with revelry to make them happy, and even a certain mockery of death itself, Dia de Muertos is a vibrant and colorful celebration of life. The festivities invite us all to accept death, laugh at it and revel in it. And why not? There’s certainly no escaping it.