Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a traditional holiday celebrated in Mexico and Central American countries on the first and second days of November. The celebration is becoming increasingly more prominent in areas of the United States where Mexican-American population is high.
Although it coincides with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, the original Day of the Dead traces back thousands of years to ancient traditions (and a month-long celebration) of different Mesoamerican cultures before European colonization. In modern times, it has evolved to integrate customs from both pre-Columbian rituals and Spanish and Catholic heritage.
Despite its name, Day of the Dead is not so much a holiday for grieving as it is a celebration of life and death as part of one natural cycle. Moreover, the festivities stem from the belief that those who have departed come back to celebrate their memories with us on those two days.
The customs for the celebration vary from region to region, but many remain consistent throughout.
Without further ado, here are five things that can't be left out from your Day of the Dead celebration.
1. Build your own ofrenda ('offering')
The ofrenda is literally an offering to the deceased, constructed in the form of an altar and decorated with gifts that represent the four elements. To create your own, you'd need a clay container filled with: water, food (to represent Earth), candles (to stand for fire) and papel picado, which are decorative paper-cut designs you can buy or make (to symbolize wind). Flowers, incense (copal usually) and photographs of the deceased are also items you can set on the ofrenda.
2. Food, skull candy and bread of the dead
A good celebration needs food and Day of the Dead is no exception. In this case, the food is dedicated to the deceased, which usually involves traditional Mexican dishes. You can welcome the spirits with some of their favorite dishes, drinks and even their preferred chewing gum. Although the food varies from house to house, there are two special types of food that most Day of the Dead celebrations have: pan del muerto, which literally means “bread of the dead,” and calaveras de azúcar, known as "sugar skulls."
3. Face painting and costumes
Originally created by artist and politician José Guadalupe Posada as a satirical portrait, the catrina skull became one of the most iconic figures to represent death in Mexican culture. Statues, busts and dolls are made incorporating its image during the Day of the Dead. Presently, many people paint the catrina on their faces and dress up in colorful costumes.
4. Write your own calavera poem
Also known as panteones, calaveras literarias (“literary skulls”) are verse compositions written in the form of epitaphs and usually in a comedic tone. Most times, the verses will be accompanied by drawings of skulls. These are used as a way to demonstrate feelings towards the dead that in other contexts would be difficult to express. If you are confident in your Spanish, you can find some examples of popular calaveras literarias here.
5. Family and friends
In Mexico, oftentimes different families come together to celebrate in big groups. Since the holiday is in honor of the deceased, many people host all or part of the celebration at cemeteries where their loved ones are buried. They spend the day there praying, eating and drinking. Don't worry though, you don't have to head to the cemetery, home is perfectly suitable.
This post was written by Ivan Ardila for Telemundo and translated by Mashable