12 Items You Need To Know To Understand Día De Muertos

There’s much more to the Day of the Dead than just sugar skulls and an altar. Below I’ll explain the origins of this tradition a millennia in the making, and all of its rich, symbolic elements.

Día de Muertos is a holiday that dates back to the Spanish Conquest: It’s a merging of different pre-Hispanic traditions that honored the cycle of life and death, which were later influenced by the imposition of Catholicism. Pre-Columbian cultures celebrated many rites related to death, and after the arrival of the Spaniards, these celebrations took on new forms that attract attention from around the globe. The Day of the Dead takes place on November 2 and, due to its distinctly religious background, is also known as All Souls’ Day.

At the center of this celebration is the importance of taking a moment to value life by looking at death. It’s a day to reflect on the transience of our existence, to remember our loved ones and celebrate the idea that their legacies and essences stay with us. People believe that on this day, the spirits come to the altar where they are represented (through photographs and personal objects) to be surrounded by the loved ones they left behind.

As with other important religious celebrations, there are several key elements for this celebration. Here are 12 items that you have to know to fully understand this celebration of life and death.

1. The Altar

The altar is the centerpiece of the Día de Muertos celebration. It can take several possible forms — and there are many rules on how to assemble it correctly. It’s usually constructed with a multilevel structure: Two levels if you want to separate the earthly world from the celestial one; three if you want to separate the sky, earth and the underworld; or seven, since this is the number of levels that a soul must pass through to reach heaven.

According to the Aztec culture, these seven levels are connected to the way in which one dies. In the Christian tradition, it has to do with the seven deadly sins. The altar is always decorated with many objects, each of which symbolizes something. 

2. Skulls

Human skulls were used in the Mesoamerican world in Aztec offerings to their gods. They even built whole walls made of skulls called tzompantlis. This is one of the primary reasons skulls are still present on altars of the dead.

In the traditional Día de Muertos celebration, these skulls are made of sugar, but now you can find chocolate or even amaranth versions. You can also find calaveritas literarias (literally “little literary skulls”), which are texts in rhyme that celebrate the life of someone who hasn’t died yet. These objects capture the playful and ambivalent spirit of the celebration.

dia de muertos

3. Copal Resin

Copal resin is a byproduct of the tropical tree Protium copal, and it’s used as incense in the altars for the Day of the Dead. In general, aromas are considered to be a very important type of offering for the dead. The logic goes that because souls aren’t necessarily attracted by the same (visual) stimuli as we are, scents can be more suitable to attract them. Copal is also important because it’s used to purify souls.

4. The Cross

On the altars, it’s common to find symbols that refer to the Crucifixion cross. This is a contribution from Catholicism, and is another reminder of the religious syncretism between the pre-Hispanic celebration of death and Christian additions. The cross is usually placed on top of the altar or next to the photographs of the deceased, but they can also be found at the base of the offering, depicted in salt.

5. The Festín

The festín is a feast of food and drinks specially prepared for the altar. It allegedly loses all its essence after the night of Día de Muertos because the spirits absorb its flavors. The festín is usually made up of the favorite dishes of the honored deceased. Popular foods include the typical Mexican dishes such as tamales, mole, pumpkin sweets and the so-called pan de muerto (bread of the dead).

The feast even includes drinks: Water is a must, but you can also offer a bottle of tequila or mezcal. The food placed on the altar is for the dead, but the remainders are also used to entertain the family gathered around for the celebration.

6. Itzcuintli

This figurine is normally only present on altars for children as a toy. The itzcuintli is one of the three breeds of Mexican dogs that existed before the arrival of the Spaniards (along with the xoloitzcuintli and the tlalchich), was said to be a spirit guide to the world of the dead.

El día de muertos en México

7. Papel Picado

Papel picado literally means “perforated paper,” and it’s an artisanal work made out of tissue paper, punctured with different death-related motifs. They’re used as decoration and tend to be in many bright colors. Each one has a meaning: Purple is connected to the Catholic religion, orange is a color of mourning, blue is for water, green for life, red for blood, white for purity and black for the underworld.

8. Pan De Muerto (Bread Of The Dead)

It’s said that the pre-Hispanic religions used to offer hearts for their sacrifices, and missionaries changed this custom to offering wheat loaves decorated with motifs of death. The bread of the dead can be sweet or salty, and the latter may be sprinkled with sesame seeds. They’re round and decorated with some bone-like elements to emulate the skeletons of the deceased.

9. Petate

The petate is a type of palm-woven cloth used in Mexico as a bed, tablecloth or shroud. On the altar, it symbolizes the desire for souls to rest, and it’s also used as the setting for the feast.

10. Salt

Salt, as was mentioned previously, can be used on the altar or on a plate to form a cross. In any case, it’s an indispensable element in any offering. It supposedly helps with the purification process of the spirits, similarly to the copal incense.

11. Sempasúchil (Marigold)

The sempasúchil, otherwise known as the Mexican marigold in English, is a strongly-scented orange flower of Mexican origin, and it’s the one flower used to decorate the altars. It’s either placed on the altar (in a vase or a pot), or its petals are sprinkled to guide the spirits to their feast by their aroma, color and shape.

12. Veladoras

Veladoras are candles placed inside glass cups. They’re safer than regular candles, as they have a smaller risk of fire. These candles illuminate the offering when it gets dark, as well as represent faith and hope. For the spiritual aspect, they provide the light that souls need to return home. 

Illustrations by Matilde Tilde.

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