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18 things you might not know about Mexicos Day of the Dead celebrations
You've seen the candy skulls and the huge parades that seem to celebrate death, but what is Mexico's Day of the Dead really about? Here's a quick guide to the traditions and customs that make it so much more than just Mexico's version of Halloween. - photo by Jeff Peterson
The Day of the Dead or El Da de los Muertos in Spanish is about as Mexican as it gets, but this unique holiday has been gaining popularity outside of its native country for a while now thanks to its macabre humor and distinctive art. Anyone shopping for Halloween decorations has probably seen at least a few examples of it: colorfully painted skulls, images of festive skeletons dancing and decked out in garish hats, etc.

But the Day of the Dead isnt just Mexicos version of Halloween. Theres a lot more to it than that. Here are some facts you might not have known about this unique holiday but probably should:

1. Its not celebrated on the same day as Halloween

Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, El Da de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated on Nov. 2. However, it is part of a multi-day sequence of festivities that usually begins on the evening of Oct. 31. Collectively, the entire celebration is sometimes referred to as the Days of the Dead.

2. The day before is dedicated to remembering dead children

El Da de los Muertos is meant to honor the spirits of deceased adults. On Nov. 1, however, families gather to remember the spirits of children who passed away prematurely. This is called either El Da de los Inocentes (the Day of the Innocents) or El Da de los Angelitos (the Day of the Little Angels).

3. Its really, really old

The Day of the Dead isnt just different from Halloween, its also potentially much, much older, too. Historians trace its origins back as far as 3,000 years to ancient Mesoamerican festivals dedicated to the goddess of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl. These festivals were traditionally held in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, which roughly corresponds to August. However, in an attempt by Spanish conquistadors to make it a Christian holiday, it was moved to the end of October and beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic Allhallowtide triduum (basically, a fancy word for a three-day holiday): All Saints Eve on Oct. 31, All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.

4. Its bigger than Christmas

The Day of the Dead is Mexicos biggest religious holiday, with big public events like parades and gatherings at cemeteries (complete with mariachi bands) as well as more intimate celebrations that take place inside individual homes. Because of that, it can get expensive. Some families in rural parts of Mexico spend as much as two months income on lavish decorations and food specific to the holiday.

5. Its a day to celebrate, not a day to mourn

Ever notice how even the skeletons look like theyre having a party in Day of the Dead art? Its a far cry from how many Western cultures view death, but Mexicans take this lightness very seriously due to the belief that spirits who come to visit would be insulted if they found everyone in mourning. So instead, Day of the Dead is meant as a celebration of life. Family members get together to tell funny stories about deceased relatives and remember how they lived, not feel sorry for them.

6. Cleaning is a crucial part of the holiday

One of the main functions of the Day of the Dead is the cleaning of the graves. This is done both as part of the ritual to prepare for the very important visitors that will be coming (i.e. the spirits of the dead) as well as for pragmatic reasons unlike in the United States, in Mexico, the majority of cemeteries are not privately owned and therefore have to be maintained by members of the community.

7. Altars to the dead show they havent been forgotten

Probably the main component of the Day of the Dead decorations is the altars, or more accurately, offerings (ofrendas in Spanish). Contrary to what the term altar implies, these are not for worship. Instead, each family assembles one as a way of paying tribute to the dead, with every part of the altar symbolizing something related to either the holiday or the dead ancestor/family member its dedicated to. This includes orange and yellow marigolds (cempazuchitl), copal incense, candles, pictures of the deceased, salt and water, traditional Day of the Dead foods and other things that might be specific to the individual person (favorite treats, toys for children, fashion magazines, etc.).

8. The flowers attract ghosts

Cempazuchitl, the official flowers of the Day of the Dead, are used in massive quantities to decorate the graves and altars a practice that has its roots in pre-Columbian traditions. These flowers (nicknamed el flor del muerto the flower of the dead), sometimes said to represent the sun and rebirth, are also believed to help guide the spirits back home. In English, they are known as Mexican Merigolds.

9. Monarch butterflies are returning ancestors

Every year during the week of Nov. 2, parts of Mexico are swarmed with monarch butterflies that travel a staggering 3,000 miles all the way from Canada. The belief that the spirits of the dead could return in the form of hummingbirds or butterflies goes back all the way to the Aztecs, so its not hard to see why the monarch would become a key decorative motif.

10. Skulls and skeletons are everywhere (and a lot of them are edible)

From masks and costumes to face paint to ornately decorated candies piled on top of the altars as offerings to the dead, skulls (calaveras) and skeletons (calacas) are inescapable during the Day of the Dead festivities. (Bad news for anyone who suffers from skelephobia.) In particular, handmade sugar skulls (calaveras de Alfeique) are an iconic part of the holiday. But hey, at least they aren't real anymore.

11. The most famous skeleton of them all is named La Catrina

Originally drawn as a political statement satirizing Mexicans who tried to adopt European cultural customs in place of their own, "La Calavera Catrina" (or "La Calavera Garbancera," as she was first called) was the creation of Mexican artist Jos Guadalupe Posada circa 1910. Since then, she has become one of the most recognizable images found in Day of the Dead artwork. Mexican muralist Diego Rivera even featured her prominently in one of his most famous pieces, "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon."

12. The dead get their own bread

Pan de muerto, which translates as bread of the dead, is another holiday treat. A sweet egg bread, it includes ingredients like anise and orange peel. Usually, pan de muerto is decorated with strips of dough arranged on top to look like crossed bones.

13. Spending a night in the cemetery is commonplace

To Americans, it might sound like a predictable setup to a horror movie, but in some parts of Mexico, spending a night inside a graveyard, picnicking next to a dead family members grave, telling stories, listening to music and just generally making merry is all part of the celebration.

14. Practices vary from region to region

Not every place celebrates the Day of the Dead in the same way. Different parts of Mexico (as well as Latin America) have different local traditions. In a town called Pomuch in the Ycatan Peninsula, for example, part of the annual celebration includes removing the bones of ones ancestors from the tombs and washing or dusting them by hand.

15. Failing to celebrate can be dangerous

If this all sounds like a lot of time and energy and money, well, just remember, not celebrating could be even more costly. According to tradition, if the dead return home and find that their family has failed to build them a suitable altar, they sometimes get revenge. That can manifest in a variety of ways, including sickness and even death.

16. Day of the Dead isnt a one-time deal

Unlike Halloween, which was thought to be a special time of year the one night when the dead were allowed to return to the world of the living the Day of the Dead isnt a special, once-a-year event for spirits. According to traditional beliefs, the dead come and go all the time, stopping in to visit living family members on a frequent basis. Instead, the Day of the Dead is more like Christmas: Its meant to remind the living of things they should be trying to remember all year round.

17. Its officially a big deal, and not just for Mexicans

Not only has the Day of the Dead been made a national holiday in Mexico, but it has also been recognized by UNESCO as an intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

18. Its made it to Hollywood

The unique folk art associated with the Day of the Dead was a key influence on both Tim Burtons Nightmare Before Christmas as well as Corpse Bride, and the Day of the Dead has featured prominently in movies like The Book of Life and Daniel Craigs 2015 James Bond movie, Spectre. But thats not all, its also made its way into video games like Grim Fandango and Guacamelee! Not bad for a 3,000-year-old holiday.
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