Day of the Dead, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, is one of Mexico's most important holidays. Many around the world also commemorate the holiday and follow the Mexican tradition which has existed for thousands of years now, long before Spanish settlers arrived. The holiday honors and remembers deceased loved ones by creating altars to honor and remember them, but not any altar. Marigolds are protagonist flowers, and Day of the Dead 2023 will be no different.
Day of the Dead 2023 - Learn About the History, The symbolism of Marigolds on This Day and Traditions
Every year, before November 1st, Mexican families gather to decorate their altars with photographs, sugar skulls, food, candles, and marigolds, otherwise known in Mexico as 'cempasúchil' flowers, being one of the most important attributes that symbolize the deep meaning of this day. Day of the Dead 2023 will in fact continue to be a 2-day celebration where it is believed that the passageway between the real world and the spirit world is open so our deceased loved ones can come back to visit us.
So what do people traditionally do when their grandpa comes back from the land of the dead? They make his favorite meal and offer him his favorite drink along with placing his favorite marigolds, singing, dancing, and rejoicing before he heads back to the underworld for another year. But what's in there for the history of this celebration and what is the deep meaning of marigolds for Day of the Dead?
Day of the Dead History Dates Back To Aztec Times
The origins of the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated in modern Mexico and among people of Mexican descent in the United States and around the world, can be traced back 3,000 years to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican rituals honoring the dead. The Aztecs and other Nahua people who lived in what is now central Mexico held a cyclical view of the universe and saw death as an inevitable part of life.
When a person died, it was believed that they went to 'Chicunamictlán', the Land of the Dead. Only after completing nine difficult levels over several years could the person's soul finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place. Family members provided food, water, and tools to aid the deceased in this difficult journey during Nahua rituals honoring the dead, which were traditionally held in August. This inspired the modern Day of the Dead practice of leaving food or other offerings on the graves of loved ones, or placing them on makeshift altars called ofrendas in their homes. Day of the Dead 2023 will be celebrated just as much as the rest of the years and especially Mexicans are honored to follow the historical lines and traditions of this unique date.
The Role of Marigolds on the Day of the Dead
An altar isn’t complete without the display of thousands of orangey golden marigolds that bring life to this celebration of passed loved ones. The vibrant color of the flowers is even more striking with the warm hues of candle lights that surround it. There’s a reason the marigold resembles the essence of Day of the Dead. During the celebration, the spirits of the dead are said to visit the living. Marigolds, with their vibrant colors and pungent scent, guide the spirits to their altars. These bold blooms have a special symbolism expressing the brevity of life.
It’s believed that Dia de los Muertos stems from an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl whose role was to guard the bones of the dead. The Aztecs considered marigolds a sacred flower so bred them to create bigger and more attractive blooms. Aztecs even used the sacred flower for decorative and medicinal purposes as well as being edible blooms thought by the Aztecs to cure hiccups and even heal those struck by lightning.
While the history of the marigold post-Aztecs is a bit murky, all species can be traced back to the New World. Spanish explorers took seeds from the Aztecs and survived the long trips across the Atlantic which were cultivated in Spain, France, and then northern Africa. Read more about the significant role of the marigold flower in the article 'Why Marigold Is the One Flower for Día de Los Muertos'. Now that you have an idea of why marigolds for Day of the Dead are a huge deal and probably what you'll see the most in altars, you must know that 'calacas' (skeletons), and 'calaveras' (skulls) are also a great deal during the two-day celebration.
Three Key Things You Should Know About The Iconic Marigold Flower
The beautiful 'flower of twenty petals' (aka the marigold) is one of the most important ornaments of Mexican tradition. Here are five things you should know about this iconic bloom!
1. Planting of marigolds begins in June and July, and the harvest starts between October and November. The cempasúchil flower is native to Mexico and has been harvested since pre-Columbian times. Its Spanish name comes from the Náhuatl word 'cempoalxochitl'.
2. You may be wondering which states produce the flower. According to the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry (SADER), Puebla, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Morelos, Durango, Sonora and Mexico City are the main cempasúchil producers in the country. In 2021, more than 19,400 tonnes of cempasúchil were harvested nationwide.
However, Puebla takes the crown as the largest producer of cempasúchil: growers in the central state planted 1,557 hectares of the flower in 2021. The entire country, for comparison, saw 2,027 hectares planted in the same year. PS: Puebla has beyond amazing marigold fields that are worth visiting. Read all about them in the article 'Flowers of the Dead in the Marigold Fields of Puebla'.
3. The Puebla towns of Atlixco and Cholula, located at the foot of the volcano Popocatépetl, have the best views of cempasúchil fields. Visitors to these fields can walk among large flower plantations while learning about their history and legends.
Day of the Dead Celebration and Traditions
'Dia de los Muertos', contrary to popular belief, is not a Mexican version of Halloween, though the two holidays share some traditions, such as costumes and parades. The border between the spirit world and the real world is said to dissolve on the Day of the Dead. During this brief time, the dead's souls awaken and return to the living world to feast, drink, dance, and play music with their loved ones as mentioned previously. Living family members, in turn, treat the deceased as honored guests at their celebrations, leaving the deceased's favorite foods and other offerings at gravesites or on ofrendas in homes.
The most well-known Day of the Dead symbols (besides marigolds) are skeletons and skulls. José Guadalupe Posada, a printer and cartoonist, used skeletal figures in his art to mock politicians and comment on revolutionary politics in the early twentieth century. His most well-known work, 'La Calavera Catrina', or 'Elegant Skull', depicts a female skeleton dressed in fancy clothes and adorned with makeup. The etching from 1910 was meant to be a statement about Mexicans embracing European fashions over their heritage and traditions. La Calavera Catrina became one of the most well-known Day of the Dead icons.
People commonly wear skull masks and eat sugar candy molded into the shape of skulls during modern Day of the Dead celebrations. 'Pan de muerto', the traditional sweet baked good of Day of the Dead celebrations in 2023, reflects the pan de animas of All Souls Day rituals in Spain. Other foods and drinks associated with the holiday but consumed year-round include spicy dark chocolate and atole, a corn-based drink.
'Feliz Dia de los Muertos' you can say to someone to wish them a happy Day of the Dead!