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Celebrating Day of the Dead (video)

AP Photo / Richard Vogel

A time to remember one's ancestors and honor death as a part of life

2017 may be remembered as the year that the Day of the Dead finally reached broad popular awareness as a holiday celebrated widely across the United States.

Day of the Dead, known as el Dia de los Muertos in Spanish, is a Mexican holiday held each year to remember ancestors and loved ones who have died. It coincides with the Nov. 1-2 Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Day of the Dead festivities involve face painting, costumes, dances, food and public celebrations.

The Day of the Dead tradition has spread beyond Mexico to other Latin American countries and any place in the world with a Mexican community. It is a distinct tradition that seeks to remove fear from death and to celebrate it as a natural part of life.

As the Los Angeles Times observed in October 2017: 

Outfits adorned with images of colorful sugar skulls, skeletons and other traditional Day of the Dead symbols are available these days far beyond the small neighborhood stores that once had a lock on such things.

Target, Wal-Mart and other big retailers have plastered the theme on masks, paper plates and candle holders. There are Day of the Dead earrings and necklaces at Party City, costumes and headbands at Spirit Halloween stores and temporary tattoos and bed covers available at Etsy.com.

Merchandise capitalizing on the tradition had been spreading rapidly in the retail world in recent years, but this year it seems to be everywhere...

2017 saw the release of Disney's animated Day of the Dead movie, "Coco," which quickly became one of the most popular animated films in history. Bringing in more than $800 million in ticket sales, "Coco" currently stands as the 16th highest-grossing animated movie ever.

An NPR story notes that the holiday brings together the spiritual traditions of Catholic Christianity with those of the pre-Columbian Aztecs:

Día de los Muertos has its roots in Pre-Columbian cultures and beliefs. Before the Spanish arrived in what is today Mexico, the Aztec gave offerings to their deceased ancestors as part of their death rituals. After the Spanish came, the celebration morphed to incorporate Catholic beliefs and practices, creating this deeply religious, syncretic tradition.

And Arturo Albin, the Mexico director of the Grief Recovery Method, observes here at Legacy that, while the holiday can seem purely festive on the surface, it can offer the opportunity for families to come to terms with grief at the loss of a loved one:

Día de los Muertos is a day of honoring and remembering our dear departed. It's a fact that the deceased is physically gone, but the celebration allows us to keep the emotional links. It's a beautiful way to pray for our loved ones who have died and keep their memory alive in our families.... In this celebration, it is normal to talk about our loved ones with our living relatives and friends. And, since the person is gone, it might be in a much less judgmental way. It would not be out of the question to express forgiveness, apologies or significant emotional statements.