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Hispanic Heritage

Los Dias de los Muertos/
The Days of the Dead

(October 31, November 1 & 2)

The Days of the Dead (or Los Dias de los Muertos) is a traditional three-day celebration practiced throughout Mexico. For the people of the United States, the idea may take a bit of getting used to. The holiday honors the dead and welcomes them back for two days of feasting and festivities. It is not a time of mourning, but a celebration of life.

The tradition of The Days of the Dead goes back to the Aztecs, long before the Spanish conquistadores arrived in what is now Mexico. The Aztecs believed that death was just one phase of a long cycle of life; not an ending but a transition. Each Fall, they and other native people celebrated two feasts for the departed: one for children and one for adults. After the Spanish missionaries arrived, the traditional Aztec two-day feast came to be carried out on All Saints Day and All Souls Day and many of the deities of the native peoples were supplanted with Catholic saints. The holiday that evolved is a combination of indigenous and Spanish customs.

In Mexico, The Days of the Dead are a time to rejoice. On October 31, a family will go to the market and buy food, candles, incense and flowers. They buy, among other things, sugar calaveras (skulls), sweet breads called hojaldra and rosquette or pan de muertos — loaves of bread decorated with "bones" — and a type of marigold called zenpasuchitl or cempasuichil. At home, the families prepare ofrendas, altars laden with offerings of food, candles, incense and flowers for the departed in their families. Then they go to the cemeteries and adorn the graves of their loved ones. Rituals at the cemeteries differ from town to town, but most feature feasting and mariachi music. After dark in many traditions, solemnity reigns. Many people remain at the cemetery throughout the night.

The overall tenor of the two days of welcoming the dead is one of happiness. Parades run through towns with coffins carrying the "dead" (who sit up and smile and accept the oranges that are tossed to them). Toys and trinkets abound, and the bakers' shelves are lined with holiday food. The dead are seen by the living as playful and happy beings who want to be entertained and feasted and cherished, and the holiday celebrates life, not death.

Activities for you to try:

Make a poster or a collage depicting a celebration of Los Dias de los Muertos. Decorate the poster with objects or pictures of objects that might be used in the celebration of the holiday. Try to capture some of the rich combinations and influences the celebration entails: life/death, happiness/solemnity, Native American tradition/Spanish Catholic tradition, humor/respect, reality/fancy, and whatever other aspects may appeal to you.

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