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Día de los Muertos: Top 10 Symbols and Their Stories

With all the holidays now dotting the calendar, don't you wonder where they all came from? I certainly do. It makes it much more enjoyable to put time and energy toward one that has some actual meaning behind it.  Which is why we bring you this Lime Guide to Día de los Muertos.

via www.ac-grenoble.fr; Flickr Joven_60; Etsy calaverasycorazones.

I’ve long been a fan of Día de los Muertos. Not only does it give me an excuse to enjoy some Halloween decorations longer, it's a fun opportunity to incorporate cultural awareness into our routine. The kids love it and it’s a wonderful way to commemorate those we've lost in a light-hearted way, adding a little meaning to what can easily devolve into the most commercial of candy holidays.

via Stoegger Photography.

And hey, it even makes a cameo in the new Bond movie! Suffice it to say, this holiday has officially made the broader pop culture index.

via Spectre, MGM Studios Inc.

Most associated with Mexico (where it’s a national holiday), Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Latin America as an occasion to honor the dead and invite them back to visit those they left behind.  A mixture of indigenous and Catholic traditions, “Muertos” coincides with All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, October 31 - November 2. Technically, November 1 is Día de los Inocentes, honoring children who have died, and November 2 is the official Día de los Muertos, in remembrance of adults. The most enthusiastic observations occur in Central and Southern Mexico, where indigenous influences remain the strongest.

via Archivo de Miguel Covarrubias, Universidad de las Americas, Puebla.

So how exactly does one celebrate Día de los Muertos? Lively festivities, fun food, great parties, and if you’re in Mexico City, the fantastical parade featured in the movie. The Aztec believed that tears made a spirit’s path back slippery and dangerous, so joyous activities are the order of the day.

via Mama Latina Tips.

Leading up to it, families set up “ofrendas” or little altars in their homes featuring the deceased’s favorite things as well as typical symbols of the holiday. If you look closely you'll notice items symbolizing the four elements of nature: wind, fire, water, and Earth. Then, on the actual holidays, people head to the cemetery to bestow their gifts and decorate their loved ones' graves.  The end result looks something like a Cinco de Mayo party crossed with the Rose Bowl Parade, but with a lot more history and personal relevance.

via Cherry Blossom Girl.

via Cherry Blossom Girl.

We may not all make the cemetery pilgrimage, but it's hard not to appreciate the typical Day of the Dead accouterments. Uplifting tone, sweet treats, and an opportunity for more decor? You had me at hello. Without further ado, here's our Lime Guide to deciphering the symbols of Día de los Muertos . . .

via Two Little Limes.

10. Marigolds: the flower of the dead was sacred to Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld. Its bright colors and bold scent was thought to guide the spirits to their altars, and are particularly used to honor adults, whereas baby’s breath is often favored for children.

9. Salt: three three most basic features of a traditional ofrenda include a washbasin with soap, a glass of water, and a dish of salt. These allow the spirit to wash up and quench its thirst after the journey back, and to purify itself and its food with the world's original preservative.

8. Papel picado banners: like flowers in general, the cut-out tissue paper represents the fragility of life.

via FuncheapSF.

7. Pan de muerto: “bread of the dead” is a semisweet egg bread usually baked with the shape of crossed bones on top and dusted with sugar. It’s included in the ofrendas as a symbol of the soil.

6. Tamales: often served during Día de los Muertos since the corn masa and corn husks in which they’re wrapped honor the soil and all-important corn.

5. Sugar skulls or “calaveras:” these vibrant and intricately decorated pieces are meant to reflect the personality of the deceased and the vitality of life.

No credit available.

4. Monarch butterflies: since they migrate to Mexico during the fall, these beautiful creatures were once believed to be spirits visiting from the land of the dead.

3. Candles & copal: represent fire and help guide the dead back. Copal is a commonly used native incense.

2. Seeds: pumpkin or amaranth seeds are often included in the altars as snacks for the dead, since in the days before sugar, skull decorations were made of seeds.

via James Mott Photography.

1. Skeletons: “Calacas” are often shown laughing and dancing, or engaged in their professions or hobbies. Dogs were believed to guide the spirits to their final resting places, so dog skeletons are also common. The female skeleton figure, “Catrina,” was made popular in the late 1800’s by the Mexican satirist and printmaker José Guadalupe Posada.

via WhisperingDark.

Isn’t this just the best holiday? If there were ever a way to defeat the fear of death, and embrace the circle of life, this sure seems like a good way to do it. We brought a few Día de los Muertos goodies back from our recent trip to Oaxaca, so take a look if you want to add a little authentic flavor to your own home! And let me know in the comments if enjoyed this little holiday Lime Guide.  Next week I'll give you some ideas for incorporating it into your own holiday festivities!

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