The celebration of Día de los Muertos originated with the Aztecs some 3,000 years ago.
In the beginning, festivities were in the middle of the summer for an entire month. But then the Spaniards moved in, conquered the Aztecs and moved the tradition to a spot on the calendar that would coincide with their own All Saints and All Souls days.
Since then, it’s been easy to confuse Halloween and Día de los Muertos. They both fall between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2. They both have ties to All Saints and All Souls days. They feature similar imagery.
But that’s where similarities end.
While Halloween has evolved into either a frightful, scary night or a night of costumes and candy, Día de los Muertos holds true to its original tradition — everything about it is designed to honor the dead.
In many communities that celebrate the holiday, families visit the graves of their relatives to spruce up and decorate the gravesite with flowers, art and candles.
They bring food to picnic graveside and exchange stories with the families of other people who are also buried in the same cemetery. In this way, they celebrate not only the lives of their ancestors but also the role those ancestors played in a larger community.
Graveside picnics often include food items such as tamales, cookies, chocolate and pan de muerto, special loaves of bread baked in the shape of a human body.
When celebrants take a bite of the human-shaped bread, they symbolically take a bite of death, thereby inoculating themselves against the fear of death.
Decoration is not restricted to gravesites.
Home altars, or ofrendas, are dedicated to relatives who have passed on. These ofrendas are decorated with flowers like yellow marigolds and chrysanthemums, a clear holdover from pre-Columbian times: The Aztecs said the color yellow evoked the fall season when nature began to die.
Ofrendas are also laden with foods the deceased enjoyed during their lifetime, from fruit and baked goods to cigarettes and alcoholic beverages — whatever it takes to honor the dead.
As a result of 16th-century contact between Mesoamericans and Europeans, the Day of the Dead is a unique festival that owes its origins to both pre-Hispanic Aztec philosophy and medieval European ritual practice. While its roots are in Mexico, celebrations of the holiday are now found in more and more places around the world.
There are good reasons for this. One may be that, instead of mourning the dead, it is a celebration of the lives of those who have gone on before us and a recognition of what those lives meant and still mean to the living.
Ultimately, celebrating Día de los Muertos is one more way to help us recognize, understand and not fear the cycle of life and death that is such an integral part of human existence.
You’re welcome at the Día de los Muertos celebration at my own church, at 6 p.m this Saturday, Oct. 26, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice.