Día de los Muertos

There is nothing more spooky than the dead. They haunt us in spirit form, they eat us in zombie form, and their manifestations are the center of Halloween. We like to dress up as ghosts, ghouls, cats, witches, playboy bunnies, influencers, sriracha bottles, and whatever else, but the root of the celebration comes from fear.

 

Halloween, however, is not the only holiday worth celebrating this late October season. We cannot forget about Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.

If you’ve ever heard anything about Día de los Muertos, you know that it’s riddled with skeletons and white faces, but it’s not supposed to be scary. Anyone who celebrates it, primarily those from Mexico, believe that on October 31 the souls of the dead return to Earth to reunite with their families (generally speaking). This is not to say that this celebration is a Mexican version of Halloween, because it’s definitely not. While Halloween is thought to be terrifying and mischievous (or in an Emory student’s case, the reason for some of the best frat parties and worst hangovers of the year), Day of the dead is a vivid and colorful celebration of life and joy. The whole point is to show your love and respect for those who have passed.

For anyone who is considering attending a celebration, I’m here to provide you with the most basic understanding of what you should be expecting.

 

If you go to a celebration, you’ll find fun makeup, costumes, parades, parties, dancing, and one of the most important components: an altar. The altar, or ofrenda, is not meant to be worshipped but rather to welcome spirits back to the mortal world. In order to tempt their loved ones to rejoin them, people load it with offerings of food, family photos, toys, flowers, water, and whatever else might tempt the dead from their eternal slumber.

In addition to the altar, the one thing you will see at every turn is the skeleton or skull, la calavera. The most famous calavera is a skeleton named Catrina. She was created in the early 20th century by a political cartoon artist named José Guadalupe Posada. He dressed her in fancy clothing inspired by the French (a commentary on the regard for European sophistication), but said that “todos somos calaveras,” to make the argument that we are all skeletons underneath everything. That mortality will not change.

Finally, food, because there’s never a party worth going to that’s not accompanied with a decadent feast. When the dead is travelling all the way from eternity to visit for a bit, they’ll get hungry, and participants have to prepare. At most Día de los Muertos celebrations, there are two primary foods: pan de muerto, bread of the dead, and calaveras de azucar, sugar skulls.

Pan de muerto is a sweet bread that is usually decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones could be arranged in a circle, to represent the circle of life, and tiny dough teardrops symbolize the sorrow that is intended to be short lived. Your loved one might have passed from this world, but they’re onto the next one and they’ll be back.  

Calaveras de azucar are a part of the artistic tradition in this holiday, which means you might see them but not eat them. The human skull is supposed to symbolize life and death. It is basically sugar, pressed into a mold and decorated with crystalline colors, that can come in all sizes. While they have historically remained just skulls, the term has come to be a blanket. Today you might find amaranth or chocolate skulls, or no skulls at all and instead, coffins, skeletons, or crosses.

This tradition has been around since the Mayas and Aztecs and has remained generally similar since its inception. There has yet to be the Cinco de Mayo equivalent. I encourage you to participate in a Día de los Muertos celebration if you can, you definitely won’t regret it.