The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated on the first and second of November. This holiday is currently celebrated as a catholic holiday; however, native indigenous tribes had been celebrating it for thousands of years. The way of celebrating in each of the tribes is unique but the main elements and beliefs remain the same. In the following paragraphs, I will discuss the origins, way of celebrating, and spreading of this holiday around the world. Origins
The Day of the Dead has been celebrated by the Mexican indigenous cultures for thousands of years. The origins are attributed to the Aztecs but many native Mexican tribes also celebrated the day of the dead. The primary tribes celebrating this holiday till today are the Mexica, Maya, Purépecha, and Totonaca cultures.
'Historians trace the origins of the holiday to indigenous observances dating back thousands of years, and to a month-long Aztec celebration dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death. The Spanish priests who accompanied the conquering soldiers with the goal of spreading Christianity in America considered this a macabre celebration of death. Gradually the Spanish priests merged the Mictecacihuatl festival with the Catholic Christian celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day and moved the date for the holiday from August to November 1st and 2nd when these Catholic celebrations occurred.' (1)
The Aztec’s cult of the dead still arises much controversy today but what is known for sure is that for the Aztecs there was no concept of hell. In the book, Mesoamerican Mythology, Graham Faiella explains that '[t]here wasn’t Mesoamerican religious equivalent to the Christian concept of sinners going to hell.' (1)
In fact, for these ancient cultures mentioned above, it did not matter how you lead your life, but it did matter how you died. 'With the exception of those who died violently, everyone in Mesoamerican cultures went to the underworld.' (2)
The underworld or Mictlan was ruled by Mictecacihuatl (later to be associated to la catrina) and her husband. Mictlan was divided in many levels. It is possible that pyramids and current altars are built based on this principle.
The Day of the Dead is a celebration consisting of a long preparation process but the main belief is that our departed ones come back to visit us during the fist and second of November (adapted to Catholicism). The preparations includes the cultivation of cempasuchil (marigold) flowers, the making of bread, and the making of altars and flower arrangements. For the sake of simplicity, I will talk about altar making, and spending the night at the Cemetery.
The altar is shaped in a pyramid like form and consists of several levels. The most common altar set up consists of three levels, which represent heaven, purgatory and hell. The levels are decorated and loaded with food that the departed once enjoyed in life. The offering consists of typical dishes and drinks but often include alcohol, cigarettes or any other product the person enjoyed in life. The altar is not complete without a picture of the departed ones. In order to orient our visitors of the underworld, a path of flowers is laid down beginning at the main door of the house and culminating at the foot of the altar.
Spending a night with our departed loved ones
Year after year, on the first of November, entire Mexican communities and families take off to the cemeteries with petates, blankets, food, candles, and flowers to spend a night with their loved ones at the cemetery. The preparations start early in the morning, flowers are cut and arranged in beautiful coronas (complex flower arrangements) to which food items are attached. At the same time, graves at the cemeteries are cleaned and set up for people to spend the night. The evening becomes chaotic as people arrive to the cemeteries with all their families. Once everything settles down, the sad graves turn into a magnificent display of lights, colors and smells. During the night, children travel the cemetery from grave to grave, reciting prayers and chants and in exchange they get fruits, sugar calaveras or bred. Even though, the day of the dead is very colorful and at times loud, it remains a solemn holiday that honors the memory of our loved ones.
Decorations and foods
The most common decorations for the day of the dead are the typical sugar calaveritas – sugar skulls (3), pan de muerto – the Day of the Dead bread (4), papel picado – paper decorations (5), and cepasuchil – flower arrangements (6).
The spreading of The Day of the Dead
The holiday is a celebration that has its roots in Mexico. However, with the mobilization of people across nations, the holiday is currently celebrated around the world. The celebration of the day is one of few authentic indigenous celebrations that have survived to this day. For this reason, the UNESCO has adopted this holiday. In fact, recently the UNESCO in a conference in Paris recognized that the day of the dead as a 'master piece of oral and intangible patrimony of humanity' (7). The goal is to maintain its original meaning and to preserve a tradition that has survived thousands of years.
The Day of the Dead is a complex tradition that honors the memory of the departed. However, it is not a celebration for the dead, rather for the living. In my experience, I still remember how the preparations of this holiday brought my family even closer. Just as children make dough skull with paint, glitter, and sugar in schools or houses of culture, so did I. I remember making pan de muerto with at my grandmother. We wheat dough and carbon to make facial features. In any case, this holiday is a way to honor the dead but also a reminder of the importance of building community around a subject as difficult as it is death.
Text by Mario Perez