Known as Día de Muertos, Finados, or Día de los Difuntos, Day of the Dead has been celebrated in most Latin American countries for over centuries and, for anyone foreign to Hispanic cultures, it might have become the most representative festivity of this region. Its origins trace back to the Spanish conquest, when indigenous pagan religions and Christianity met and merged many of their rituals, including those concerning death. Today, we’ll give you a basic introduction to this celebration, so you can join us on honoring the lives of those who’ve passed away.
All prehispanic cultures performed rituals for their dead, but maybe the most influential part for our modern-day celebration comes from the Aztec Empire. When someone in the Aztec society died, their family would gather the most valuable objects of the deceased together, along with their favorite food and place them around the body, as a way of saying one last goodbye. Additionally, there was a whole month of summer where people would celebrate Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of the Aztec underworld, with offerings for her to keep looking over the bones of their deceased.
As for the European heritage, believe it or not, the roots Day of the Dead are the same to those of Halloween. They both originate from an early Christian festivity called Allhallowtide that lasts from October 31st to November 2nd, in where a mass is offered every night to honor and remember the dead. The third day of Allhallowtide celebrates All Souls Day, and commemorates all faithful Christians — saints, martyrs, and baptized people — who have passed away.
As Spaniards conquered the Aztecs, they realized that it was impossible to convert them into Catholicism without preserving many of their traditions. The celebrations for Mictecacihuatl continued, but they gradually ended up merging with Allhallowtide and spreading throughout the Spanish-conquered part of the continent. Now, our festivities to remember the dead start in October 28th and last for almost a week. Here, we welcome all those who have previously left the world of the living and have returned to visit us for a few days. Some activities include visiting their graves, decorating an altar, writing poems, and flying kites, depending on the country you find yourself celebrating.
On November 2nd, we celebrate Day of the Dead, the day that these visiting souls return to the world of the dead. Before saying goodbye, we prepare their favorite meals of when they were alive and accompany it with different regional treats such as pan de muerto (a Mexican pastry), sugar skulls, fiambre (a Guatemalan salad), atole (a cornstarch-based beverage), colada morada (a drink made from fruit and black corn), or guaguas de pan (a baby-shaped Ecuadorian pastry). This way, we all have one last feast together before saying goodbye until next year.
As you can see, Day of the Dead is not a sad day in Latin America. It’s a bittersweet festivity to celebrate the lives of our most beloved friends and family members that already left us, and one more chance to share memories of them with those who’re still by our side.