History of Day of the Dead ~ Día de los Muertos

Day of the Dead is an interesting holiday celebrated in central and southern Mexico during the chilly days of November 1 & 2. Even though this coincides with the Catholic holiday called All Soul’s & All Saint’s Day, indigenous peoples descending from the Aztec, Huastecos, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mixes, Chinantecos, Purépecha, Mexica, Otomi and Mayans were forced to adopt Catholicism and give up their multitheistic religious beliefs. Catholic priests believed they would have more success in converting the Indigenous if they could keep their cultural pagan customs and apply Biblical stories, saint's names and a monotheistic God to what the people were already believing. Hopes were to convert slowly over several generations and this would create a less combative relationship between the missionaries and the indigenous populations.  The indigenous indian groups all had similar but regionally unique ways to honor their ancestors. They had death rituals, burial ceremonies, beliefs about the afterlife and beliefs that souls could return from the dead at prescribed times to commune with the living. Many Pre-Conquest indigenous traditions called for feasting, building altars, drums & chanting, offerings to the dead and story telling.  The Aztecs in 600 AD - 1400 AD lived with a 13 month calendar (each month had 20 days) where the 10th month was totally devoted to honoring the dead.  

It's difficult to lump all indigenous groups into the same pre-Conquest traditions, but many believed in 7-9 layers of underworld where the soul of the deceased would travel a lengthy journey to eternity. Archeological burial sites show important men buried with objects to assist in a successful journey - buried with jars of food, grain, drink, weapons, even live dogs for protection and some had their live wives buried with them for consort.  The symbol of this multi-layered underworld was exemplified in the design of the post-Conquest ofrendas.  Even today, a home table ofrenda might have many 

They believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.

In most Indian villages, beautiful altars (ofrendas) are made in each home. They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil & bright red cock’s combs) mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day of the Dead breads called pan demuerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.

Day of the Dead is a very expensive holiday for these self-sufficient, rural based, indigenous families. Many spend over two month’s income to honor their dead relatives. They believe that happy spirits will provide protection, good luck and wisdom to their families. Ofrenda building keeps the family close.

On the afternoon of Nov. 2, the festivities are taken to the cemetery. People clean tombs, play cards, listen to the village band and reminisce about their loved ones. Tradition keeps the village close. Day of the Dead is becoming very popular in the U.S. ~ perhaps because we don’t have a way to celebrate and honor our dead, or maybe it’s because of our fascination with it’s mysticism.

Ofrenda Checklist & Day of the Dead Information Sheet

We offer free, down-loadable information sheets on Day of the Dead and how to make a home altar (ofrenda). Feel free to print them and distribute them to your school, restaurant, class, museum event, party or church. Day of the Dead is frequently misunderstood and we’d like to educate anyone about what a meaningful and beautiful holiday this is.

  • Day of the Dead information sheet PDF
  • How to Make an Ofrenda information sheet PDF

      The Sugar Skull Tradition

      The Sugar Skull Tradition

      Sugar art was brought to the New World by Italian missionaries in the 17th century. The first Church mention of sugar art was from Palermo at Easter time when little sugar lambs and angels were made to adorn the side altars in the Catholic Church.

      Mexico, abundant in sugar production and too poor to buy fancy imported European church decorations, learned quickly from the friars how to make sugar art for their religious festivals. Clay molded sugar figures of angels, sheep and sugar skulls go back to the Colonial Period 18th century. Sugar skulls represented a departed soul, had the name written on the forehead and was placed on the home ofrenda or gravestone to honor the return of a particular spirit. Sugar skull art reflects the folk art style of big happy smiles, colorful icing and sparkly tin and glittery adornments. Sugar skulls are labor intensive and made in very small batches in the homes of sugar skull makers. These wonderful artisans are disappearing as fabricated and imported candy skulls take their place.

      There is nothing as beautiful as a big, fancy, unusual sugar skull!

      Although it is a holiday from far away in southern Mexico, it’s a holiday one can personalize and integrate into their own religious and cultural beliefs. It is more of a cultural holiday than a religious one. It is a wonderful way to celebrate the memories of our loved ones who are now gone… through art, cooking, music, building ofrendas, doing activities with our children, we can recount family stories, fun times and lessons learned… not how the person died, but how they lived.

      I hope you come to enjoy Day of the Dead as much as I do!

      ~Angela Villalba

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      Day of the Dead – The Catholic & Pagan World

      Day of the Dead – The Catholic & Pagan World

      Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico and the Catholic world… Italy, Spain, South America and the Philippines all celebrate All Souls and All Saints Day on November 1st and 2nd. Special Masses and perhaps cleaning of the cemetery tombs are part of the traditional activities… it’s only in Central and Southern Mexico where the colorful parties take place in the cemeteries and elaborate ofrenda altars are built in the homes to honor specific family members who have passed on.

      This sweet angel grave marker is nestled amongst thousands of candles which illuminate the cemetery in Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca. Here, family members sit vigil in the cemetery throughout the night of October 31, so as to welcome the “angelitos” or dead children’s spirits the moment they are released from heaven to come home to visit their parents.

      Ancient culinary tradition of the zacahuíl

      Ancient culinary tradition of the zacahuíl

      This home baker in northern Veracruz is an expert in his village for preserving the ancient culinary tradition of the zacahuíl, or gigantic banana leaf-wrapped tamal. This tamale will serve over 100 people on Day of the Dead. It’s a pistol to construct and wrap so it doesn’t fall apart; then baked in a homemade adobe outdoor oven. It’s then sealed with mud until morning.

      The sugar skull fair – Feria de Alfinique – is a child’s paradise. This little one is so excited to make her sugar skull purchase.
      The sugar skull fair – Feria de Alfinique – is a child’s paradise. This little one is so excited to make her sugar skull purchase.

      Day of the Dead Celebrations are Diverse

      In Mexico, the colorful, much anticipated, Day of the Dead celebrations are generally celebrated in the states from Mexico City south. This includes Michoacan, Mexico, Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Chiapas and the Yucatan. Northern Mexico, with its less indigenous and more European roots, spend the day scrubbing graves and going to Mass… not having music, drinks and parties in the cemeteries.

      molded sugar coffins

      Molded sugar coffins

      These molded sugar coffins are actually toys to delight the returning spirits of children on November 1. Pull the string and a smiling calavera skeleton pops out of his coffin!

      Chocolate sugar skulls

      Chocolate sugar skulls

      Chocolate sugar skulls are hand molded & decorated and sold by the thousands at the Sugar Skull Fair. Candy makers work for 4-6 months to have enough merchandise for the sale. Sugar skulls are sometimes eaten, but their main function is to adorn the altars and tombs with a sugary delight for the visiting spirits! Miniature candy skulls are made for the baby angelitos and are displayed on the home ofrendas on November 1… then replaced with full size skulls on November 2 for the returning adult spirits!
      Shop our Sugar Skull Molds

      Day of the Dead outdoor market in Patzcuaro

      Day of the Dead market in Patzcuaro

      Day of the Dead outdoor market in Patzcuaro, Michoacan where locals buy their sugar skulls, special foods, copal and altar decorations. This is the only market where I’ve found sugar cats and sugar Guadalupes.

      decorating her home ofrenda

      Decorating home ofrenda

      This woman artisan was busy decorating her home ofrenda with candles, copal, fruits, cempasuchil (wild marigolds), cock’s comb and saint’s images. Later, when the home cooking is done, she’ll bring big plates of food to offer to the spirits of her returning loved ones! Note the beautiful cross-point cloths she made.

      Oaxaca outdoor market

      Oaxaca outdoor market

      Here’s an old photo of me in the Talcolula, Oaxaca outdoor market buying sugar cane from one of the many “out of town vendors” who come in with all the special items we need to celebrate the holiday. I got four 8 ft tall stalks of sugar cane for about $4. These are used to make the arch over the ofrenda which represents the archway to heaven.

      Gigantic sugar skulls

      Gigantic sugar skulls

      Gigantic sugar skulls are made from 50 year old molds for the competition at the Feria de Alfinique in Metepec, Mexico. These sugar skull makers have been making artisanal sugar for generations.

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