First off it has nothing to do with Halloween, is not sad and is a happy celebration of life.
One of the key features of Day of the Dead is the an oferenda or an altar which is made to honour the deceased & can be displayed at a gravesite or at home.
Altars with 3 levels represent the sky, the earth and the underworld. Altars with 7 levels are common and relate to the 7 levels that a soul must traverse before reaching heaven (or hell).
Upon dying, a person was believed to travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. Only after getting through nine challenging levels, a journey of several years, could the person’s soul finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place.
No matter how many levels you have for your alter some of the must have elements represent water, wind, earth & fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst after their journey. Papel picado, or traditional paper banners represent the wind. Earth is represented by food, especially bread.
Along with the water, wind & earth elements, photos of those who have passed & their family are added along with skulls (calavera) usually made of sugar to represent death & the sweetness of life. Cempushil flowers which are used because they are similar to the colour of the sun – an important god in prehispanic times. The name is derived from Aztec origins and roughly translates to the “flower of many petals.” The petals are also used to lead from the graves to the house as a guide for the spirits to their altars using their vibrant colors and pungent scent.
November 1st is when the spirits of the children that have passed are said to visit and toys & candy are added to the altar, then on November 2nd it is the adults turn and that’s when it’s time to bring out the cerveza, tequila, black mole & their favourite dishes.
Another popular figure for DoD is La Catrina, sometimes you’ll see her as part of an alter or as a decoration, and icon of her own, year-round. Her purpose is to honor & protect those who have passed & to symbolize the relationship Mexicans have with death.
The current iteration of Catrina is a female skeleton wearing a wide-brimmed hat & dress common for upper class Mexican women in the late 1800s – early 1900s. This style satirizes those who favored European culture over Mexican foods and customs. Popularized in graphic images by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada.
What do you feel when you think about death?