Celebrating Dia de Los Muertos, From Marigolds to Monarchs

The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is an annual spiritual tradition originating in central Mexico that is celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2 throughout Latin and Central America. Believed to have originated over 3,000 years ago by Aztecs who believed society shouldn’t mourn the dead, it is a meaningful and celebratory holiday that incorporates the practice of making ofrendas— or offerings– to those who have passed.

Below, watch Director Ali Alvarez’s gorgeous short film that addresses (among other aspects of the celebration) the botanical elements involved in the procedures of Dia de los Muertos (via Nowness). The constituents of any one single ofrenda varies from region to region, but typically these altars– built inside the homes of those who celebrate The Day of the Dead– include cempasúchil (marigold) flowers (either real or made from paper, as the colors were thought to attract spirits and lead them home); copal incense (made from a tree-based resin that indigenous populations burned to ‘transmit prayers’); various citrus fruits and culinary staples like tamales and mole; decorative sugar skulls and other calavera (skull) iconography; traditional pan de muerto (a food staple shaped like bones), and candles portraying the Virgin Guadalupe (among other religious tokens). Most families will also add pictures of their departed loved ones and other sentimental offerings specific to the person.

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Traditional ofrendas are also arranged at a time of year when the monarch butterfly makes its migration across central Mexico, which is perhaps why Mexican folklore coheres around the idea that monarch butterflies are a symbol of the soul. As one interviewee notes in the documentary above, holes are drilled in the coffins of the dead because the soul (el alma) is thought to escape the body after death in the form of a butterfly. When the monarchs return (as they always do), the migration is viewed as the spirits of ancestors returning home to visit– a beautiful metaphor for life’s triumph over death.

For more information on the history and symbolism of Dia de los Muertos, visit the Smithsonian Latino’s web resource for online learning.

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