Beyond the Skull: Understanding the Tradition of Día de los Meurtos

In 2017 Pixar Animation came out with the film “Coco” which revolved around a holiday which is widely celebrated in Mexico and several other Latin-American countries: Día de los Muertos. 

Many have heard of this colorful tradition, and recognize the beautiful costumes and the painted skull faces. But how much do you know about the history, customs, and meanings behind this day?

This holiday is rooted in both Mesoamerican and Spanish Catholic traditions. It is a continuance of the pre-Hispanic indigenous month-long tradition of honoring the dead led by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, or “Lady of the Dead.”

This observance was moved to coincide with the Catholic holy days of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, November 1st and November 2nd respectively. 

On November 1st the souls of deceased children are honored, and that day is called Día de los Inocentes or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Innocents or Day of the Little Angels). 

November 2nd is for honoring ancestors and adults who have passed on, and that day has the title of Día de los Muertos that we are most familiar with. 

Taking place directly after Halloween, it’s easy to be confused about what sets Día de los Muertos apart. A completely different celebration, it has roots that have developed separately from Halloween traditions. 

At its core, Día de los Muertos is not meant to be scary, macabre, or dark. It is, in fact, a joyful remembrance and vibrant celebration of life. 

It is believed that on this day, the dead return to meet the people, and experience the things, they loved in life, and they are warmly welcomed with altars that are built in the family homes. These altars, or “ofrendas,” include photos of the deceased, some of the deceased’s personal belongings such as clothes, some of their favorite foods, as well as candles, incense, marigolds, colorful tissue paper banners called papel picado, and religious symbols. 

Marigolds, a plant that’s native to Mexico, are used to decorate the altars because it’s believed their bright color and strong scent will guide the spirits of the dead back to the world of the living. 

People also visit the graves of their ancestors, and depending on where in Mexico you are, there may be parades and festivals.

Mexican food is something the entire world has come to love, and now, UNESCO has qualified it as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Based heavily on the Mayan and Aztec diets, which included corn, beans, chocolate, cinnamon, and chilies, and merging with the Spanish Colonial introduction of pork, beef, onion, garlic, and rice.

On Día de los Muertos, typical celebratory foods are served, such as tamales, mole, and tortilla soup. In addition, pan de muerto, a soft sweet bread often decorated with bones, and calavera de azúcar, candy skulls made of sugar, icing, and sometimes chocolate, are both treats that are only eaten for this holiday. The food is accompanied by steaming mugs of atole, a creamy, sweet corn drink, while the adults might enjoy a glass of pulque or mezcal.

Do you want to celebrate Día de los Muertos this year? All three Front Range campuses are holding celebrations on November 1st! Stop by the Multicultural Center on your campus to learn more about Día De los Muertos and participate in various events throughout the day. 

Boulder County Campus at the Classroom Building Multicultural Center: LatinX club will be celebrating Día De los Muertos with face painting, food, and dancing!  Student Life and LatinX Club will also be hosting an ofrenda and presentation on the traditions of the holiday.

Larimer Campus at the Longs Peak Student Center Multicultural Center: celebration through education. Come learn about the wonderful tradition of Día de los Muertos, decorate cookies, and watch Coco!

Westminster Campus at the Multicultural Center: Join us for a vibrant and heartfelt celebration of Día de los Muertos, the traditional Mexican holiday honoring our dearly departed loved ones. This cultural extravaganza will immerse you in the rich traditions of this festive occasion, as we come together to create beautiful marigolds, intricate papel picado, and colorful sugar skulls.

Written by Morgan Treat

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