November 2019 - The Philanthropy Issue

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An Introduction to Dia de Los Muertos: The Day of the Dead

A decorated cemetery for Dia de Los Muertos.

What Is This Dia de Los Muertos?!

Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday observed in Mexico and South America with roots in Aztec origin going back several thousands of years. For these Pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum.

The dead were kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth, around the time of the corn harvest, a symbolic time of death and re-birth.

The Catholic Spaniards tried to abolish the entrenched holiday, but were unsuccessful, and Dia de Los Muertos was moved from the summer to the fall, where it was super-imposed over the Christian holidays All Saints’ Day on November 1st (for the Saints in Heaven) and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd (for all souls).

In contrast to Halloween, a night when children wear costumes to scare away spirits that are harmful or mischievous, Day of the Dead festivities unfold over several days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Loved ones demonstrate their affection and respect for deceased family members and friends through elaborate altars and decorated grave sites.

As November approaches, families begin the process of sprucing up their homes in preparation for the construction of altars. They clear weeds and scrub tombstones in the cemeteries.

It is customary to place a photograph or image of the deceased on the altar, in addition to a favorite beverage or flavored water to quench the thirst of the departed after the long journey. Other items include liquor, food, family photos, memorabilia, candy, toys for children, and a candle for each dead relative.

Grave sites are similarly decorated with candles and flowers, including pungent orange marigolds thought to attract souls of the dead back to Earth.

For those wanting to participate in these extraordinary festivities, San Miguel de Allende is the perfect destination. In many places where the holiday is celebrated, tourists are mere observers, but in San Miguel, participation by all is welcomed and encouraged. And if you can't make it to San Miguel to celebrate with us, then consider constructing an altar in your own home!

Over the next week, we’ll dive deeper into this incredible holiday with a multi-part series. Join us as we explore the spiritual aspects of Dia de Los Muertos, traditional ways of celebrating the holiday from a life-long San Miguel resident, and a modern-day vision of the Day of the Dead with the La Calaca Festival.

We’ll be sure to include a full calendar of events and costume recommendations... So get ready to party!

Martha & Nicole

Special thanks to Mary Jane Miller for sharing her photos and expertise with us!