Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertas, began as a sacrilegious day celebrated by the Aztecs some 3000 ago. The Aztecs and Toltecs believed people shouldn't be mourned, it was disrespectful, as they remained in spirit and memories. The festivities were celebrated once a year in the summer to celebrate those who had passed and over time as the day merged and evolved into Mexican culture, Day of the Dead was moved to coincide with All Saints Day and All Soul's Day on the 1st and 2nd of November.
Eventually the festival moved north through Mexico and is now celebrated by most Latin American cultures and even throughout the world. Graveyards in Mexico are often publicly owned and maintained or looked after by the church. During the days of these celebrations families often go to the graves of loved ones and take the opportunity to clean up the area, weed and set up decorations.
Day of the Dead celebrates the life of those that have passed. It is a time to honor the dead and welcome them back into the land of the living for 24 hours so they can be with loved ones. It is said when the veil is thin, they can come to offer advice to family and friends, give council, dance, eat and celebrate their lives that were. It is a time to recognise death as just another stage of the human experience.
Alters are created at the grave yards or in the family's homes, often with the favourite things of those who have passed to welcome them back. The offerings often include water, candles, flowers, photos, incense, food and items loved by those who they are honoring. The family will visit with the grave, tell memorable stories of those who have passed, sing and eat delicious food. The festivities are very joyous and colourful. Marigold flowers and their petals are often scattered and copal resin is burned at the alters and graveyards as a symbol to guide the spirits back to their resting site.
Foods commonly cooked and eaten during this festival are sugar skulls, sweet bread and the favourite meals of passed loved ones. People dress in colourful clothes and don face paint in intricate designs.
One of the most famous symbol of the Day of the Dead celebrations today is the calaveras - skulls. This symbol came from a Mexican political artist who etched a picture of a skeleton in fancy dress to symbolise the fact we are all skeletons underneath our exterior facade - we are all the same. The Calavera Catrina, or elegant skull, is the most famous symbol of the festival today. During Day of the Dead you can find these intricate skull designs on sweets, dolls, clothes, knick knacks, carvings and painted on the faces of many celebrating the evening.
For the indigenous communities, especially in Mexico, Dia de los Muertas is a very important and respected holiday. It is a beautiful tribute to those who have passed and it is also an opportunity to learn about family history and relive those precious happy memories.