Living in Texas one cannot deny the growing influence of Day of the Dead celebrations. As the Hispanic/Latinx population becomes the largest demographic group second only to the Anglicized population here in Texas (and growing strongly in a population boom across the nation), I have begun to notice major retail store chains starting to carry Day of the Dead themed décor.
As a Heathen, I love seeing this ancestral celebration growing in both awareness and popularity, but there are a few things to know before you decide to incorporate the Day of the Dead into your own celebrations. The most important of which is the Day of the Dead is not Mexican Halloween.
The Day of the Dead (or el Día de los Muertos, sometimes simplified to just Dia de Muertos) is a cultural celebration most strongly connected to Mexico (but does appear in other parts of the Americas, especially in what one would consider the traditional region of Mesoamerica, and the connected diaspora of its descended cultures and peoples). At its core the Day of the Dead is a celebration of life, while embracing the knowledge that death is a natural part of the cycle of life. The focus of the celebration is the dead: one’s family, one’s friends, one’s ancestors.
Centuries ago in what we think of as Mexico, there was an Aztec festival in the summer dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl who was Queen of Mictlan (the Underworld). In Aztec art she was represented with a flayed body, and mouth open to swallow the stars during the day. She is married to the God Mictlantecuti who presides over the underworld with her. The flayed body is a common motif among Mesoamerica and neighboring cultures to the Aztecs. Having part of the flesh missing symbolized the connection of that deity to death. For Heathens (Northern Tradition Polytheists) this is a somewhat similar concept to what we see in Gylfaginning, where the Goddess Hel is described as having flesh of two colors, the dark cold of the grave, and the color flush with life.
Some modern persons equate the Aztec Goddess with folk cultic practices that have cropped up to Santa Muerte (also known as Saint Death, or Holy Death). Outcastes and the downtrodden flock to her in large numbers, but she has believers from all walks of life and status, from successful college educated career professionals to members of the drug cartels. Personally I suspect that Santa Muerte as we know her today has become a syncretization of the old Aztec Goddess Mictecacihuatl with the newer influence of Catholicism’s Virgin Mary (and/or the Lady of Guadalupe).
Santa Muerte is not a figure recognized by the Catholic Church, in fact the Vatican has condemned her cult as being blasphemous. She is estimated to have more than 10 million followers in the Americas and is believed to be the fastest growing religious movement in the world. Scholars have found evidence of cultic practice continuing to her through the centuries of Catholicism in the region. Though how widespread these practices were is unclear, as these were underground cultic practices until the 20th Century. While there are some who are Catholics who have an unsanctioned cultic practice to her, there is also a trend where people are cutting ties with the church and founding independent churches and temples dedicated to Santa Muerte. Worshippers come and bring offerings, they pray to her to intercede on their behalf, they crawl on their knees to her in worship and in need.
Many scholars feel that the ancient festival to the Goddess Mictecacihuatl was the regional origins of today’s Day of the Dead celebrations. During the Spanish colonization of the Americas, the observance became syncretized and thus adjacent to the observance of the Catholic Church’s Allhallowtide (October 31-November 2), which is comprised of the observances of All Saint’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. The Catholic Church’s AllHallowtide was in its own way syncretized with European pre-Christian practices as well.
While the timing of the celebration today may be adjacent to Halloween, this holiday is about remembrance of the dearly departed dead, from friends to family members and ancestors going back in time. The heart of the celebration is about the dead: decorating their graves with marigolds, setting up ofrenda (altars) for the dead where offerings are put out of food and drink, music is played for the dead, tokens of remembrance are put out, and most important of all the dead are remembered.
This is the heart of the celebration in its intimacy at the foremost personal and family level observed in homes, neighborhoods and cemeteries. Dia de Muertes is undergoing a metamorphosis in modern times as it is commercialized and growing into something that has more of a feel of celebrations elsewhere in the world of carnival or Mardi Gras as a festive and jubilant time for community wide parties. In the last few years this has really exploded in Mexico, a huge driving force for this coming straight out of Hollywood.
In 2014, 20th Century Fox brought us the animated movie Book of Life, which was one of the first mainstream introductions to the Day of the Dead celebration for many. A year later, Hollywood presented to us an incredible fantasy Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City during the 2015 installment on the James Bond movie franchise, Spectre. James Bond, portrayed by Daniel Craig in the film, navigates the parade to get into position to carry out his mission. Before the film’s release, Mexico City had never had a Day of the Dead parade, but in 2016 started one because of the James Bond film, using it to build up tourism to the city. Also gaining access to some of the parade props used in the film.
And shortly after the international box office hit Spectre, there was another major movie that released from Hollywood: Pixar Studios’ Coco, released by Disney. This animated movie had global box office success almost on par with with the success of Spectre. Thus firmly placing Day of the Dead into the mainstream consciousness.
In very recent years kids in some of the major cities in Mexico now go door to door and receive sweet treats in the form of skulls, so they literally are given sugar skulls to eat in a custom in part inspired by trick or treating customs from the United States. Chocolate decorated skulls are common, as cacao (or chocolate) originates from the Mesoamerican region. Some are made from marzipan, and others from sugar pressed into skull shaped molds.
While commercialization is impacting the Day of the Dead, pushing it into an evolution that many in Mexico are crying out against, the modern Day of the Dead iconography that many are familiar with really dates to the early 1900s and the work of political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Posada used skeletons in his work to remind people that life is short, and whatever you are in life, in the end we all die and are just bones. While the term calaveras is for skulls, it can also be used as a term used for a very specific type of poetry that was very popular during Posada’s life, and his work was often attached to these poems. The calaveras poems were highly satirical, and were written as epitaphs to famous living figures as if they were dead. In this way they were politicized as a satirical take on those who were betraying Mexican culture, trying to take on the airs of Europe, or simply mocking the arrogant pride of believing or presenting oneself as better than another.
While Posada’s work had many skeletal figures it is the creation of his Catrina that has become the most iconic. La Catrina, is a skeletal female figure who traditionally is dressed in Spanish influenced clothing worn in early 1900s Mexico. She wears an exaggeratedly large hat (so large it could be used as an umbrella) with fancy ostrich feathers. She is often called La Calavera Catrina (Skull Catrina) because usually her skeletal face is all you see of her bones. While Posada created Catrina, he never named her. To him she was La Calavera Garbancera. Her iconography was further propelled in 1947 into the cultural zeitgeist through a painting by Diego Rivera, the husband (and artist in his own right) of Frida Kahlo. Diego was the one who named her Catrina, as a feminine version of the term Catrin which described males of the social and wealthy elite who lived a luxurious lifestyle and focused on matters of style. Contextually, it had the colloquial overtones of calling a man a dandy. Catrina has become probably the most distinctive figure of modern Mexico, and ironically is a statement now of Mexicanness. [Arts and Culture news site Glasstire, has an amazing article you can read up on to learn more about Posada and Rivera.]
Today, Catrina while still rendered as a skeletal female figure, can be dressed in a variety of ways. She usually still has some sort of head covering: the traditional huge plumed feather hat, a flower crown, a Saint like crown with metal spikes in lieu of heavenly light, or a mantilla (traditional lace veil head covering from Spain). She is depicted usually in fanciful dress, whether the traditional 1900s European influenced fashion of Mexico, to elaborate ball gowns, or traditional Mexican dress (think similar to what Frida Kahlo herself wore which was a blending of various ethnic styles from Mexico), as well as other such very Mexican garments. La Catrina’s popularity has led her today being paired with other skeletal figures from men, children, and animals. To be clear, skeletal figures have been connected to the festival before Posada, but this current style of the iconography is more recent. They are never rendered as grotesque, bloody, scary, or mournful.
While today’s celebration is becoming more of a large community party with a family friendly carnival feel, it’s important to note that even if you have received an invitation to a Day of the Dead themed party, that there are very finite parameters for what is appropriate to wear. There is a fine line between cultural mockery and appropriation, and cultural respect. The dress should always be family friendly. These costumes shouldn’t look like they belong in a horror slasher or creature feature film. This is not the place for vampires, werewolves, mummies, zombies and witches. This is not the time to wear your Wizard of Oz costume, or try to woo the ladies as a Roman legionnaire. Anything that says “Sexy Day of the Dead” costume is a hard, hard pass. Do not buy it, do not wear it. Usually dressing up like Catrina or as a skeleton is accepted whether or not you have Mesoamerican heritage.
In Mexico, this also becomes a day to celebrate Mexican culture so you’ll see performing mariachi players in charro suits, and ballet folklorico dancers too in their ribbon star forming Jalisco or Escaramuza styled dresses with high collars. Some of the performers will pair this with the skeletal face makeup to make this more special than a performance at another time of year. Women wearing huipil (which are sleeveless tunic like tops in a variety of lengths and regional styles that are traditionally paired with a long skirt) feature prominently too. This look may be recognizable to many outside of Mexico because iconoclast Frida Kahlo was known to wear these garments sometimes. You will also see other Mexican garments worn like the blusa or camisa, which was influenced by the European chemise (sometimes also called a Mexican peasant blouse by those outside Mexico) and adapted by locals usually in more rural areas accented with distinctive local embroidery designs. There are now versions of this which are simple long dresses usually in an A line cut which are a modern evolution. You’ll also see other regional variants of women’s dresses from Campeche, Chiapas, Michoacan, Tehuana etc. Women might be seen with a shawl garment known as a rebozo. For men you might find sombreros being donned, or sarapes which were woven overgarments worn over their shirts as a small blanket-like shawl. Panchos which are also overgarment pieces are distinctive from sarapes as they are made with a hole in them for the head.
Sometimes, harkening back to the Aztec ties of the festival you may also see indigenous Mesoamerican clothing worn. (For lack of a better comparison, this is of the type of outfits you’d see worn to a powwow but for those harkening from the Aztecs, or other Mesoamerican cultures). This is one outfit and approach you should definitely leave to only those with that specific heritage. This prohibition also extends to the indigenous, Mesoamerican style feathered headpieces worn by those cultures, or their Gods (as seen in archaeological depictions). Some may add a subtle accent of artistic elements to personalize their Catrina to nod to the Aztec origins by bringing in accents of the geometric patterns found in archaeological designs, or by using a few quetzal feathers for accent. But this requires a very light handed approach, as there is a fine line before you cross cultural boundaries of what isn’t appropriate. More recently you’ll also see some dress up as Monarch Butterflies, or women in vast ball gowns made to look like they are a marigold brought to life. This isn’t mere whimsy, but rather very intentional symbols to the dead.
Monarch butterflies journey as much as 3,000 miles in an annual migration into the forested mountains of southwestern Mexico every autumn by the millions to winter in the mountainous forests. Here in Texas we start seeing the monarchs passing through in late September, with the peak coming in October. According to local Mexican folk belief, the butterflies represent the souls of the dead, which is why you will see them used sometimes in Day of the Dead decorations, or as people dressing up as the butterflies during Day of the Dead events.
If you don’t feel like going all out, or are concerned about crossing the fine line of cultural appreciation to mockery, you can always wear nice clothes (dress, suiting) and style it up with some accessories that celebrate the dead, and if you choose go for a skeletal face makeup usually in the sugar skull style. Black is the classic for this, but orange and yellow are also popular colors because of its ties to both monarch butterflies and marigolds. Purple is sometimes worn as it is a color connected to mourning and the dead, and red and green will show up as well in connection with the nation’s flag. Leave the jack o’ lanterns, bats, black cats, ghosts and pumpkins at home as those are not tied to this tradition.
Please keep in mind though that the Day of the Dead is just that, a day to pay respects to the dead. Dressing up to party, is not the same as actually venerating the dearly departed. If the dead aren’t part of your celebration, then you’ve clearly missed the point, and you’re really just partying to party.
When parties are hosted, there will be community ofrendas, where people are invited to decorate the altar and honor their loved ones. Marigolds are such a huge staple of these decorations. They are known for big blooms in late fall and early winter in Mexico, and feature as a common decoration during the Day of the Dead festivities because their bright blooms and their accompanying sweet fragrance are believed to guide the spirits of the dead to the altars erected in their honor. Blankets of marigolds are laid up as a path to lead the dead to their altar. You may also find papel picado, which are perforated, brightly colored pieces of paper usually strung together as a banner. The perforations are used to create designs. In some areas there is a folk belief that says the perforations allow the spirits of the dead to pass through. Some families will actually make these papel picado from scratch, and use this as a family craft project with the kids. Skeletal figures are also used to decorate the altar as a stand in for the dead.
Treats in the form of calaveras (skulls) are left out to decorate the altar. These are not meant to be scary. The classic sugar skull shape always renders the skull in a cheery manner. The saying goes they are given a smile because the dead are happy to be remembered and to visit the living. The sugar skull aspect of the tradition is believed to tie to 18th century Italian immigrants from Palermo who brought it with them, and overtime Mexican style decorations were added to the treats. These sugar skulls are not only a symbol of the dead, but are there to feed them too. Pan de Muertos (Bread of the Dead) follows traditions we see elsewhere in Catholic areas of Europe as a common feature. In some areas of Europe the pastries for the dead are more like cookies. This Mexican pastry however is a sweet rounded bread prepared for the Day of the Dead, commonly shaped with crossed bones on the top.
Drinks like atole (also known as atol de elote) is a common part of the offerings too. Atole is usually a corn and masa-based hot beverage originating from MesoAmerica, although some variants may use rice, wheat or oatmeal as the liquid base. You can find atole served in Mexico year round. Champurrado is a type of atole that has chocolate added to it, and is a popularly served hot drink during Day of the Dead celebrations, and into the winter holiday season. It has all the comfort of a hot cup of cocoa, with some cinnamon and vanilla too. (I’m sipping some now thanks to the palateria nearby. Yum.) It’s not as heavily chocolate as “hot cocoa” usually is, but it is tasty. Some Catholics will also put on the ofrenda a cross they make of salt to help feed their departed loved ones and in so doing it helps to purify their souls of sin. Of course favorite drinks and dishes of the dead are also put out. So if you bring food to the party potluck style, make sure the dead on the altar are fed first, before other servings are fed to the living.
The final touches of course are the dead themselves so pictures feature prominently. For a community ofrenda (versus one in your own home) I recommend bringing a copy of a picture so if you forget it, you don’t lose the original. Some will also bring out special items connected with the dead, heirloom pieces (though this happens more in one’s own home). Candles are lit to light the way, and music is played or voices raised in song to help draw the dead to the party in their honor so they can join with friends and family again.
This is a time to build ties across generations, the living and the dead. Share the ancestral stories, remember fond memories of the dead and tell those stories to those who may never have known them.
There are regional variances in the customs. In some areas a great deal of importance is placed on the cemeteries and vigils there. Others have ofrendas and celebrations in their homes. Some areas, for whatever reason have very little folk practice to this at all. Some regional custom may be very community minded inviting all, and others may be more insular and private in their observance.
As a Heathen, living in Texas I’m more than happy to add pictures of my departed friends and family to community ofrendas when I am invited to do so. I will also incorporate some of the food and drink into my ancestral altar as it is a regional taste of my location, as an addition to my normal practice.
So if you’re invited to participate in some Day of the Dead celebrations, be respectful and remember the whole purpose of the celebration is to honor and remember the dearly departed dead.
I’ll leave you with some links to some stunning pictures to help capture a bit of what Day of the Dead is like in Mexico.