Day of the Dead image

Perhaps Mexico's most mysterious and wonderful holiday, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is an incredible time of year.

Other than Día de la Independencia (Independence Day) on September 16, my favorite holiday is Día de los Muertos. The days leading up to Día de los Muertos are a frenzy of building, decorating, and preparing for the night of November 1st, when Mexicans believe that the divider that separates the world of the living from that of the dead becomes more permeable. On that evening, our ancestors are able to travel back to our world and share the joys of being together as a family.

To help them find their way back home, offerings and altars are placed throughout homes, businesses, cemeteries, and public plazas. The ancestors are represented throughout Mexico by the Catrina, the beautifully-dressed skeleton, who has become the symbol of the holiday.

 
Coco movie poster

If you know nothing more about Día de los Muertos than what you learned by watching the Disney/Pixar film Coco, then you're in a good place. The Pixar team spent months traveling around Mexico to learn the finer details of the holiday in order to create a believable world, and they did a great job.

 
Mama Coco image

In fact, animators reportedly based the character of Mama Coco on a real woman who lived just outside Morelia, María Salud Ramírez Caballero, who, sadly, passed away on 16 October 2022, just shortly after she celebrated her 109th birthday.

 

Origins

Día de los Muertos is in no way a new event: it has been observed (in some form) for thousands of years. (And the origins of our modern Halloween are certainly related.) In the Codex Borgia, we see an image and description of Mictēcacihuātl, the queen of the Aztec underworld. Her role was to watch over the bones of the dead.

The Aztec believed that the dead make a journey through nine levels of the underworld, and various offerings were presented to assist them in their journey. These ofrendas, or offerings, remain with us today, even as the tradition has merged with other pagan and Christian festivals, including All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.

Mictecacihuatl

 

The Catrina

The image most frequently associated with Día de los Muertos is the 'Catrina,' the elegantly-dressed skeleton. She first appeared in a political cartoon drawn around 1910 by Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada. He wanted to satirize President Porfiro Diaz' obsessions with European society, which led to Mexican high society eagerly adopting French fashions and manners. (Eventually Porfirio's obsessions and corruption would lead to the Mexican Revolution of 1911, and the toppling of his regime.)

dotd posada.catrina

In the sketch, titled La Calavera Catrina, Posada wanted to depict high-society Mexicans as desperate to be seen as sophisticated Europeans, so much so as to literally starve themselves to death in order to afford the latest French hat. These "posers" (to use a more modern term) were vapid shells driven by the need to adopt European sensibilities, soulless but finely-dressed.

The image of the Catrina was later included in a mural in Mexico City by Diego Rivera, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, in which he depicted a central La Catrina in an ostentatious full-length gown linking arms with Posada himself—and also Riviera's wife, the artist Frida Kahlo. The mural became a cultural treasure, and further amplified La Catrina's image in the national consciousnesses.

dotd mural

dotd my catrina

Every year, the nearby village of Capula hosts a Catrina festival, in which all of the town's ceramic artists display and sell traditional forms, and especially a wide variety of Catrinas. This is the very Michoacán-inspired Catrina I bought last year, covered in Monarch butterflies (who migrate every winter back to their habitats in the Michoacán mountains.)

She stands approximately 20 inches (51cm) tall, and every single element has been crafted by handed, painstakingly applied, and then the whole was fired and finally hand-painted. These are truly works of art!

 

The Flowers

dotd scott

Although many different flowers are used in decorations for Día de los Muertos, there are two in particular that are everywhere: cempasúchiles and terciopelos rojos (cockscomb).

The cempasúchil is a Mexican species of marigold, which has a lovely aroma said to help guide ancestors back home. Ofrendas and displays feature lots of full flowers, as well as just the petals. The terciopelo rojo goes by a number of different names here—everyone has a different name for this impressive flower, which contrasts so beautifully with the cempasúchil.

In the month of October, all of the fields surrounding Morelia are filled with flowers waiting to find their way into the city for Día de los Muertos.

 
fields of flowers
more fields of flowers
more flowers

 

The Carpets

During the week leading up to Día de los Muertos, every plaza in the region becomes carpeted in beautiful displays of color and symbolism. These carpets are crafted of flower petals, tinted rice, colored sawdust, and other materials. Many of the carpets are projects undertaken by local high school and university students, who are tremendously proud of their creations.

Fortunately, the rainy season has subsided, and the carpets last pretty well through the week. although sometimes—like all of us—they need a little touch up to be ready for the big night!

carpets of flowers
more flower carpets

 

The Ofrenda

Along with the carpets come the ofrendas, or altars honoring the ancestors. There are large general altars in public places, and also smaller personal altars in homes and businesses. The ofrenda exists to help the ancestors return home on that special night. In addition to photos of the deceased, it is customary to include small plates of their favorites foods to welcome them home. Flowers, candles, skulls made of spun sugar, cups of tequila or mezcal, and fruits might also be included.

My sister Amy and her husband Bill were visiting Morelia from Cincinnati this year, and Amy helped me build the ofrenda in my house. I was so very pleased with the way that it turned out, and I hope it provided a sense of joy and hospitality for our family who has passed.

my ofrenda
my ofrenda at night

 

The Parade

At 6:00 pm on November 1st, the Catrina Parade begins, featuring hundreds of people wearing traditional Catrina attire, dancing, music, and more.

catrina parade couple
catrina parade