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October 26, 2004 > El Dia de Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead

El Dia de Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead

by Susana Nuñez

Similar to the well known All Hallows Eve or Halloween, countries such as China and Mexico observe holidays honoring those that have passed on. Traditions of trick-or-treating and dressing up as vampires, pop-culture icons (i.e. Elvis) are not as common in Latin America as in places like the United States. The Day of the Dead has kept its organic elements in tact, although some Halloween influence has worked its way into the holiday. This welcoming home of the dead's souls dates back over 2,000 years to the times of the Aztecs.

The Day of the Dead is not by any means a morbid holiday. It is a time to remember and honor the dead while they roam the Earth on this annual visit. Contrary to Western cultures, Aztecs, as well as other pre-Hispanic civilizations, honored duality. Instead of viewing death as the end of life, they viewed it as the continuation of life. They believed that life was a dream and they would only truly awake in death. During the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Spaniards attempted to rid the Aztecs of this notion in order to fully convert them to Catholicism. They refused to change their beliefs, so the Spaniards moved the ritual in order to make it more Christian. They moved the holiday so it coincided with All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2).

Before the ritual's move to the beginning of November, it was celebrated throughout the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar, approximately August. Overseeing the festivities was the goddess Mictecacihuatl, or "Lady of the Dead," who was believed to have died at birth. In honoring their goddess and their dead, these civilizations used skulls, which they kept as trophies, to display during the ritual. The skulls symbolized death and rebirth and are today represented by wooden skulls or sugar skulls. Sugar skulls are created with the name of the deceased on the forehead and are eaten by a relative or friend.

Traditions differ in every region, including Mexico, some parts of Central America, and the U.S. Whether they perform cultural dances or set up altars in their homes, the traditions all serve the same purpose. Altars are especially common in homes during the days, and weeks in some regions, of the celebration. They can include anything from pictures of the person they are honoring to meaningful objects and their favorite foods. A common food used in altars is called pan de muerto, or "bread of the dead." Candles are often lit as well as incense burned on the altar. Many also adorn them with flowers and play the deceased's favorite music.

The Day of the Dead in its purest form honors the strong bond between life and death and respects those that have crossed over. By welcoming them home for the holiday, loved ones feel comfort knowing that their lives have not truly ended and that they are still among them.

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