The Day of the Dead: The Aztec holiday explained in graphics

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

The celebrations will likely be more muted this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but many of the activities associated with the holiday can be celebrated with minimal risk of coronavirus infection. 

According the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these activities include playing music at home that the deceased enjoyed and making an Ofrenda (altar) to memorialize those who have passed. The CDC considers other traditions, though, high-risk, such as attending crowded indoor celebrations with singing or large gatherings such as parades. Here’s a brief look at the symbolism associated with the holiday:

Days of celebration

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, sweet bread rolls and drinks are placed alongside clay decorations and personal items on Ofrendas 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 often found on Ofrendas

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Aztec mythology influences

With its mythology mixed with Aztec and Catholic influences, Día de los Muertos is rich in history. It dates back as far as 2,000 years: The Aztecs believed the spirits of their ancestors passed on to the underworld. Colorful mystical creatures called Alebrijes were introduced to the holiday in the 1930s. With exaggerated bodies with stripes and dots, they are considered creatures from our dreams and from the realm of the dead.

Miclantecuhtl, 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. It was in the early 1900’s where artist Jose Guadalupe Posada drew a satirical version of a fancy female skeleton in a decorative hat, that became one of the many symbols of the Day of the Dead.

Regions of the holiday

Traditionally celebrated with parades with colorful floats and festivals, this year’s celebrations in Mexico City will be going virtual. The app called “Xóchitl, Mexico’s virtual ambassador for the world” will work as an interactive digital platform featuring augmented reality (AR), allowing those participating to enjoy the Mexican culture and traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead. 

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.

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

The Mexican holiday surrounds death, but it’s a time to celebrate life with loved ones. Learn more about the holiday that’s gaining traction in the U.S..

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