May 28, 2023

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Dia de los Muertos Art | Image Source:

Everyone on this Earth will lose a loved one -at some point in their lifetime. Some people believe that when you die – that’s it – it’s the END. Others believe that Spirit continues on after death. An Aztec belief is that life on earth is merely a dream and that -only through death- we truly awaken. It was out of this belief that a month-long celebration was born to remember and honour those who had passed into this sacred realm. Rooted in what is now known as Central and Southern Mexican regions, the Spanish Conquistadors and Catholic Church tried to abolish this tradition however Day of the Dead continues to celebrate those who have passed on and has since evolved to incorporate aspects of multiple beliefs.

MUSKRAT Magazine presents eight cool ways Dia de los Muertos celebrates loved ones who have passed on:

1. It’s a celebration of life.
The Aztecs and many Indigenous Peoples today believe that the dead (those in the Spirit realm) are negatively impacted by mourning and sadness, so the living often celebrate those who passed on with food, drink, parties, and activities that the dead enjoyed in life.

2. Day of the Dead used to be celebrated at the beginning of August.
Dia de los Muertos was celebrated at the beginning of summer on the Aztec calendar, which was approximately July-August, for a full month. In a vain attempt to convert this sacred time to a Catholic celebration, the Spanish Conquistadors moved it to November 1 and 2, to coincide with Allhallowtide which includes All Hallows Eve (Halloween), All Saints Day and All Saint’s day.

The Iconic La Calavera Catrina
The Iconic La Calavera Catrina | Image Source:

3. The Aztecs dedicated the festival to the goddess Mictecacihuatl.
In Aztec mythology, Mictecacihuatl is known as the Lady of the Dead. She rules over the underworld, Mictlan. There are many interpretations of Mictecacihuatl in modern literature. Some say she watches over the bones of the dead, others say she is the protector of souls residing in the dark underworld, but most literature states that she was sacrificed as an infant and grew up in the underworld harnessing immense power.

4. La Calavera Catrina is the most familiar symbol of Dia de los Muertos.
The distinct figure La Catrina is a female skeleton in upper class attire wearing an elegant plum hat aspiring to the likeness of European aristocrats. The symbol originated from the father of Mexican printmaking, Jose Guadalupe Posada, around 1910-1913 as a reminder that death touches all beings, leaving everyone equal in the end.

5. Calacus: sugar skulls.
Sugar skulls are a tradition that date back to the 17th Century that were created to represent a departed loved one. Their name is usually inscribed on the forehead of the skull and placed on their gravestone or an altar set up in their honour. They are often colorfully decorated with beads, feathers and foil and have a lengthy production process with artists spending up to 6 months prior to Dia de los Muertos making them.

An Example of an Ofrendas, an Altar Set Up for Deceased Loved Ones on Dia De Los Muertos
An Example of an Ofrendas, an Altar Set Up for Deceased Loved Ones on Dia De Los Muertos | Image Source:

6. The flower of the dead is the Cempasuchil.
Cempasuchil, also known as the Aztec marigold or Mexican marigold, is a plant native to Central America that has a distinct smell and vibrant color. The color signifies the sun which will in turn guide the spirits to where they are being celebrated.

7. Ofrendas are set up to honor relatives who passed away.
An ofrendas is an altar set up to commemorate a deceased friend or family member on Dia de los Muertos. Usually the altar contains photos of the deceased, candles, incense, and cempasuchil along with some of their favourite belongings. Because of the Catholic Church’s impact, ofrendas now include religious symbols such as statuettes of the Virgin Mary, crucifixes and images of saints.

8. Putting food out for the deceased.
Part of the decorations for the ofrendas is setting out food for the departed. Many people put the loved one’s favourite food on it, along with fruit and pan de muerto. Pan de muerto translates into bread of the dead and is a sweet, egg based bread. It’s a newer tradition that is just another example of blending traditions between the Catholic Church and the Indigenous Peoples.

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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