A Celebration of Life

November 1, 2023

From time to time on the Boulder Spanish blog, we’ll take a look at a cultural or historic aspect of a Spanish-speaking country. This time, it’s Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, widely observed in many parts of Mexico on November 1 and 2, and in other locations by people with Mexican heritage, including in the United States and other areas of Spanish-speaking world. 

Día de los Muertos is a holiday to honor dead ancestors, friends, and loved ones by remembering and celebrating them through a variety of traditions. Families create altars, or ofrendas (offerings) in their homes, with photos of the deceased, bright marigolds (caléndulas), candles (velas), ornate sugar skulls (calvera de azúcar), papel picado (colorful paper banners with cut-out intricate designs), and the departed’s favorite foods (comidas favoritas) and beverages (bebidas) These ofrendas are to welcome the souls of the loved ones to return and visit during the holiday. Altars are also set up in public spaces and town squares. Families will make ofrendas at the departed loved ones’ graves, too, where all-night parties at the cemetery have everyone enjoying food and drinks, dancing, playing music, and sharing memories, stories, and laughter. 

To be clear, Día de los Muertos is not “Mexican Halloween” with spooky ghosts, scary witches, and frightening haunts. Día de los Muertos is a festive opportunity to honor and welcome beloved ancestors with joy, not dread or fear.

A loved one’s death is a sad event, but with this holiday, Mexicans understand it is also a natural part of life. While people mourn their departed loved ones, Día de los Muertos is a time to remember them fondly and happily. When the souls of the dead return to earth to share time with their living relatives, it’s a celebration through a peaceful acceptance of death as a part of all life. 

Día de los Muertos is a centuries-old cultural practice. Most historians believe that Día de los Muertos has roots in ancient Aztec rituals which celebrated the goddess Mictecacihuatl, their Queen of Mictlān (the underworld). After Spanish conquistadors invaded and colonized Mexico, the festival became fused with their Catholicism. This included moving it from early summer to autumn to coincide with their holidays of “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day,” which also commemorate the deceased. 

The blending of these traditions evolved into the celebration of Día de los Muertos recognized today with families creating altars, decorating the graves of loved ones, bringing food and festivities to the cemetery, and lighting the way with candles and bright flowers for the dead to return to their families. 

Much like the early Aztec festival and the current incarnation of Día de los Muertos, Mexicans who live in the Yucatán peninsula region of Mexico have their own cultural festival to honor passed loved ones. Yucatán is where the Mayan culture originated and exists today. Here, people celebrate the Mayan festival of Hanal Pixan (pronounced ha-nawl peesh-awn), which translates to “Food for the Souls” in the Maya language.

Both Hanal Pixan and Día de los Muertos are celebrated on November 1 and 2, and the holidays have many similarities, but also some differences. While local traditions vary among Mexico’s regions, cities, and families, both holidays are joyful and involve setting up altars (ofrendas) and decorating gravesites to welcome the dead to return in spirit and share time with their loved ones. 

Hanal Pixan is also meant to continue the connection between the dead and living, but it has some unique Maya touches represented in different customs. For example, families do not put photos of their deceased loved ones on the altar until a year has passed since their death. Also, before Hanal Pixan begins, families clean their houses thoroughly to prepare to welcome home their deceased loved ones. Animals are put in the barn so as to not startle deceased loved ones. Candles are set along walkways to usher the deceased home to eat a special meal called Mucbipollo, also called “pib.” A cornmeal shell is stuffed with chicken, tomatoes, peppers, onion, and seasonings; wrapped in banana leaves; and cooked in a “pib,” or underground oven. Like the dead loved ones Hanal Pixan celebrates, mucbipollo is buried and then brought out to share with family. 

If you have a chance to visit Mexico during these festivals (y para practicar tu español, por supuesto), you’ll experience age-old and unique customs. These Mexican traditions of joyfully uniting with deceased loved ones is a beautiful way to celebrate life and the memories and souls of loved ones who’ve passed on. 

Celebre a sus seres queridos muertos y a toda la vida. 

Here are some of the items you may see on altars and at gravesites during Día de los Muertos and Hanal Pixan in Mexico:

  • Atole – a warm beverage of corn or rice meal, water, and spices 
  • Botellas de tequila, mezcal, o cerveza – bottles of tequila, mezcal, or beer for thirsty souls to drink when then return
  • Calavera de azúcar – a skull-shaped treat made from sugar paste and decorated with bright colors and cheerful designs
  • Calendulas o cempasuchitl – marigold flowers 
  • Incienso de copal – copal incense, to guide the souls with its aroma
  • Fotografías – photographs, usually of deceased loved ones
  • La Calavera Catrina – this skeletal woman is an unofficial icon of Día de los Muertos, and you’ll see people all over the world painting their faces to look like hers
  • Papel picado – brightly colored paper banners with cut-out designs 
  • Pan de muerto – a sweet bread often enjoyed with tamales or hot chocolate (chocolate caliente)
  • Sal – salt, usually in the form of a cross, for purification
  • Velas – candles to light the way home for the departed

Nos vemos pronto,