This post is sponsored by el Jimador Tequila as part of its Day Of The Dead Special Coverage section on The A.V. Club.
Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: the observance of Day Of The Dead.
The transition from the ripeness of summer to the barrenness of winter has historically inspired all kinds of rituals across different cultures. Where today we might brace for cuffing season (in the Midwest, anyway) or non-stop Netflix, our ancestors were just a tad more high-minded, establishing harvest festivals to bid farewell to their crops, welcome those bounties, and honor their deceased loved ones. One such observance is Día De Los Muertos, or Day Of The Dead. It’s a tradition that began in pre-Columbian Mexico that’s since spread throughout Latin America, as well as up north, to the United States, where three years ago, Disney mistook it for something that could be trademarked.
Even if you don’t have any Latinx friends (which, if true, is a shame), you might be familiar with some of the imagery and/or customs. If you saw Spectre last year, then you witnessed one of the largest Day Of The Dead celebrations in the world during the film’s opening. And that’s only one of the most recent examples of the holiday finding its way into American pop culture. (Despite the title, George Romero’s 1985 film is in no way related.) The Book Of Life, an animated film from Jorge R. Gutiérrez and Guillermo Del Toro, did a wonderful job bringing the holiday to life. But its proximity to Halloween often means that Day Of The Dead is observed by people with no real understanding of its customs or significance. There are some similarities between the holidays—they’re both rooted in harvest festivals—but they comprise distinct traditions. So we’re going to help you keep them straight with this primer.
Day Of The Dead 101
Like so many other holidays, Día De Los Muertos (or Día De Muertos) is a product of religious syncretism. (It’s similar to how Christmas comprises the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, among other things.) There are numerous traditions and festivals that were folded into the now two-day celebration that most of Latin America is familiar with. They include the two-month celebration of the fall harvest held by the Aztecs, a time in which they also personified death and/or commemorated their dead. The festivals honored Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec goddess of the dead who oversaw the underworld. Mictlán, as the Aztecs called the underworld, wasn’t a place of punishment or despair. It wasn’t heaven either, though the Nahua people, to which the Aztecs belonged, certainly believed in one (which had 13 levels). Mictlán was one of the levels of the underworld, and where the souls of the dead were believed to be living in peace. Then, when the festivals began, they’d come to visit their loved ones, i.e., the living.
The festival of Mictlán fell during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, which roughly corresponds to the beginning of August. During these times of remembrance, the Aztecs made offerings on altars, with things like the deceased’s favorite foods, to entice the dead or otherwise guide them back to the land of the living. The harvests represented both aspects of this celebration of life and death, which the Aztecs saw as two parts of the same cycle. These festivals focused on celebrating the life of the departed, not mourning their departure.
After the invasion by the conquistadors and Christianity, these harvest and commemorative festivals were shortened and repackaged as Días De Los Muertos, which now fall from November 1-2. November 1st, which also happens to be All Saints Day, is a time for remembering all the lost children, while November 2nd (also All Souls Day) is for remembering deceased adults. But the tradition of appealing to your ancestors and more recently lost loved ones continued, and Mexico still holds some of the most exuberant celebrations of these hybrid holidays.
Today, the altars (or ofrendas) are adorned with flowers—a symbol of the ephemerality of life—in addition to the dead’s favorite things and personal possessions. The festivities can get very elaborate, ranging from live mariachi music to reenactments of ancient Mesoamerican rituals. But there’s no morbidity in any of the festivities—life in all its forms is being celebrated.
The celebrations involve plenty of food, naturally, including champurrado (a corn-based hot chocolate) and pan de muerto. This “bread of the dead” is a sweet roll or bun, decorated with sugar in the shape of bones and teardrops, which represents the Aztec goddess Chimalma’s tears for the living. There are also lots and lots of calaveras or sugar skulls. This particular tradition, which began some time in the 17th century, is probably the most recognizable. You can find it in all kinds of artisanal and corporate shops, in and out of Latin America. But there isn’t supposed to be anything commercial or spooky about calaveras; they actually represent rebirth, which is why they’re so prominently displayed during this holiday.
The calavera also took on a satirical bent in the hands of José Guadalupe Posada, an influential Mexican printmaker and engraver who lived and worked in Mexico in the late 19th to early 20th century. Posada was also a political cartoonist, who used skulls and skeletons to send up Mexico’s elite, including its president, Porfirio Díaz. La Catrina, a well-dressed skeletal figure, initially represented the country’s economic disparity, but has since become a symbol for Day Of The Dead. She’s Posada’s most enduring creation, and she too has indigenous roots—the artist was inspired by Mictecacíhuatl and the harvest festivals that once made up Día De Los Muertos.
The combined elements of food, fall, and having a sense of humor about death bring to mind another holiday—Halloween, whose origins can also be traced to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. This two-day event marked the time when, according to the Celts, the division between their corporeal world and the spiritual one was at its permeable, allowing the spirits of the dead to return. Costumes were part of the ancient ritual, as the Celts disguised themselves as spirits just in case they happened to come across any. Samhain also fell during the last harvests of the year, and was also eventually folded into Christian holidays.
Despite their similar histories, though, Day Of The Dead is not simply Mexican Halloween. It’s not just that Halloween is, by now, much more removed from its origins than Day Of The Dead. Sure, there’s lots of merriment on both occasions, but the revelry in Mexico is more reverential. And it’s still intended to celebrate the dead, which is hardly the focus of most Halloween parties. Those festivities have been revised over the years too, as well as those of Day Of The Dead. But the spirit of Day Of The Dead remains the same, which is why many (not all) Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are offended by sugar-skull face-painting and other questionable, culturally appropriative moves.
N.B. Day Of The Dead is now a national holiday in Mexico, but it hasn’t always been (and currently isn’t) observed by everyone in the country. The people in the northernmost parts actually resisted it in its syncretized form early on because of its indigenous roots, preferring to celebrate All Saints Day instead. They were overruled by the federal government, though.
For further enlightenment
This primer focused on the Mexican origins and contemporary celebrations of Day Of The Dead, but the holiday is celebrated throughout Latin America. You can find more info on those festivals here.
The artist Posada also crafted calaveras literarias; these irreverent epitaphs mocked Mexico’s living elite, and were published in newspapers. You can find more of his work here.
Lots of other countries and cultures have celebrations of the dead around the world, in case you’re wondering.
Seriously, check out Gutiérrez and Del Toro’s The Book Of Life. It’s more a multicultural work than a history lesson, but it’s visually breathtaking, and stars Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, and Channing Tatum as the heroes, while Kate Del Castillo plays La Muerte (not to be confused with La Catrina).