October marks the appearance of pumpkins, ghosts and bats at homes and retailers as a visual celebration of Halloween. You may have noticed, however, how skeletons-wearing-hats and colorful altars seem to also be peppering the retail landscape these days, particularly in heavily Hispanic areas.

Welcome to the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Edible skulls, anyone?

The Day of the Dead is one of the most treasured celebrations in Mexican culture, and it’s recognized by UNESCO as one of the Intangible Cultural Heritage elements of Humanity. In spite of this, it is surprising how little most people know about the tradition. And this goes not only for non-Hispanics, but also for Hispanics of non-Mexican origins.

Below the 3 things you need to know about the Day of the Dead:

1. It appears creepy, but it’s not.

The Día de los Muertos is actually a very beautiful day of remembrance. People celebrate the memories of departed relatives and friends. The gatherings, while always having melancholic undertones, are usually jovial and even humorous often times filled with funny anecdotes of the deceased.

What gives non-Mexicans the creeps are all the skulls, bones and zombies-gone-wild makeup that some people wear. For our western civilization, skulls have always had negative connotations: dead, suffering, disease and deadly pirates. In modern times, we use them identify dangerous things like toxic substances and high voltage lines.

For Aztecs, however, skulls were the symbol of death and rebirth. In the context of their religion skulls have positive connotations and carry the power to protect against diseases and to keep people safe from their enemies. This is why skulls appear so often as architectural elements of Aztec temples.

Here’s the best part: during the Day of the Dead, deceased ancestors and friends get a sort of “hall pass” to come back to earth just for one day. So, when people gather, the assumption is that the dead are back visiting, hearing and seeing everything.

This explains why many people clean and organize their homes for this day: you don’t want your place to look messy if your dead aunt drops by to visit. This also explains the ofrendas, which are almost like a three-dimensional scrapbook to celebrate those who are no longer with us.

In the ofrendas you will see pictures of the departed, memorabilia, and their favorite foods and drinks. Some people go all out and make it a celebration of food: there is a lot of cooking, usually moles, traditional dishes and the ubiquitous “Pan de Muerto”, or bread of the dead, a baked sweet roll decorated with bones.

Tradition has it that when the spirits visit their altars, they will “eat” the spiritual substance of the foods offered – so if you eat them at the end of the day, they have no nutritional value, and you can eat and drink all you want without fattening consequences. This is one part I can really get on board with.

You will also see handwritten messages to the deceased that can go from the simple “I miss you” to more poignant things like “I forgive you,” or “You won’t mind if I go on now?”

People also visit cemeteries in hordes to clean up tombs and to spend a few hours praying or talking to their deceased loved ones.

In all, it’s a beautiful way to honor memories and lives lived.

2. It’s the oldest non-religious festival celebrated in the Western hemisphere.

Variations of the day of the dead had been celebrated by pre-Columbian civilizations for at least 2,500 years. A version closer to its current form was celebrated by the Aztecs to honor the goddess Mictecacihuatl (pronounced “Meek-teh-ka-see-wahdl”), also known as the “Lady of the Dead.”

The goddess’ main role was to watch over the bones of the deceased, and it was represented by a beautifully dressed skeleton. A modern representation of the goddess used today is also known as the Catrina.

Parts of the Aztec tradition survive today: the heavy usage of orange Mexican marigolds, the skull and bone imagery and the making of altars to honor the departed.

3. It’s actually three days, not just one.

In her interesting book, “Latina and Latino Voices in Literature”, Frances Ann Day summarizes the tradition beautifully:

“On October 31, All Hallows Eve, the children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos [little angels] (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit. November 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits will come to visit. November 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The three-day fiesta filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations.”

Because of the growth of the Hispanic population, it’s only natural that the Day of the Dead will become more prevalent in many US communities. There are many ways in which you can participate in the Day of the Dead and make it an interesting cultural activity. There are celebrations all over the country.

If you’re in Houston, you can have an art-filled celebration to make this Day of the Dead a memorable experience, including our client the Houston Symphony performing the world premier of “La Triste Historia,” a work inspired by the Day of the Dead.

Please get in touch with us if you’d like more specific information about the Hispanic culture or would like to explore our LatinSmarts Hispanic Immersion programs.

Happy Día de los Muertos y’all!