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Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead (November 2)

Photography by GLAMUR

Reading Time: 8 minutes

This festival represents one of the most relevant examples of the living heritage of Mexico and the world, as well as one of the oldest and most complete cultural expressions of the indigenous groups that currently inhabit our country. Various historical and anthropological studies have confirmed that the celebrations dedicated to the dead not only share an ancient ceremonial practice where Catholic and pre-Columbian traditions coexist, but also manifestations that are based on the ethnic and cultural plurality of the country.

With the Day of the Dead festival, as practiced by indigenous communities, the transitory return to the land of deceased relatives and loved ones is celebrated. These festivals take place every year in late October and early November. This period marks the end of the annual cycle of corn, which is the predominant crop in the country. To facilitate the return of souls to earth, families spread flower petals and place candles and offerings along the path from the house to the cemetery. The deceased’s favorite delicacies are meticulously prepared and placed around the family altar and grave, amidst flowers and handicrafts, such as the famous paper silhouettes.

These preparations are made with particular care, as there is a belief that a deceased can bring prosperity (for example, a bountiful corn crop) or misery (illness, accidents, financial difficulties, etc.) depending on whether or not it is, satisfactory the way in which the family has carried out the rites. The dead are divided into several categories based on the cause of death, age, sex and, in certain cases, profession. A specific day of worship is assigned to each category.

This annual encounter between indigenous peoples and their ancestors fulfills a considerable social function by affirming the role of the individual within society. It also contributed to reinforcing the political and social status of the indigenous communities of Mexico. Indigenous festivals dedicated to the dead are deeply rooted in the cultural life of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. This fusion between pre-Hispanic religious rites and Catholic festivals allows the rapprochement of two universes, that of indigenous beliefs and that of a vision of the world introduced by Europeans in the 16th century.

It is a festival that is celebrated in Mexico and in some Central American countries, as well as in many communities in the United States, where there is a large Mexican and Central American population. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has declared the festival as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The cult of death in Mexico is not something new, since it was practiced since pre-Columbian times. Likewise, in the Mexica calendar, which is located in the Museum of Anthropology, it can be observed that among the 18 months that make up this calendar, there were at least six celebrations dedicated to the dead. Later, the Christian evangelizers of colonial times accepted in part the traditions of the ancient Mesoamerican peoples, merging them with the European traditions, in order to implant Christianity among these peoples.

There is a record of celebrations in the Mexica, Mayan, Purepecha and Totonaca ethnic groups. The rituals that celebrate the life of the ancestors are carried out in these civilizations since pre-Columbian times. Among the pre-Hispanic peoples, the practice of keeping skulls as trophies and displaying them during rituals that symbolized death and rebirth was common. The festival that became the Day of the Dead was commemorated in the ninth month of the Mexica solar calendar, near the beginning of August, and lasted for a full month. The festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of Death” (currently related to “La Catrina”, a character of Jose Guadalupe Posada) and wife of Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Land of the Dead. The festivities were dedicated to the celebration of children and the lives of deceased relatives.

The passage from life to death is an emblematic moment that has caused admiration, fear and uncertainty to the human being throughout history. For many years, in various cultures beliefs have been generated around death that have managed to develop a whole series of rites and traditions, either to venerate it, honor it, scare it and even make fun of it. Mexico is a country rich in culture and traditions; one of the main aspects that make up its identity as a nation is the conception of life, death and all the traditions and beliefs that revolve around them.

In any case, it should be noted that this celebration is not typical of all Mexicans since, despite being a party that has become a national symbol and that as such is taught (for educational purposes) in the country’s schools, there are many families that are more attached to celebrating “All Saints Day” as they do in other Catholic countries. In addition, the strong influence of the United States, which, at least in border areas, is evidenced by the presence of the holiday known as Halloween, which is celebrated each year more frequently and in a greater number of homes. Hence, there is also a concern among Mexicans themselves to want to preserve the Day of the Dead as part of Mexican culture over other similar celebrations.

Currently, the celebration is full of many customs. People like to go and bring flowers to the graves of the dead, but for others it represents a whole rite that begins at dawn when families make altars of the dead on the tombstones of their dead relatives, these altars have a great meaning already that with them it is believed that the dead are helped to take a good path to the afterlife. Families spend long hours working on the altar, many of these altars are considered true works of art, as they reflect the work, dedication and creativity of the people to offer a good altar.

There are many ways to make altars of the dead, the simplest is usually done by many people inside their houses since a photograph of the deceased is placed on a table covered with a tablecloth, and it is adorned with flowers and some souvenirs. Other altars are made according to tradition, where it is established that the altar must consist of 7 levels or steps that represent the 7 degrees that the soul of a dead person has to pass in order to rest.

These altars are generally made in places where there is a large space where the entire altar can fit, which must be swept the room with aromatic herbs towards the four winds one day before the day of the dead. First, the skeleton of the altar is built or manufactured either with cardboard boxes, wood or whatever is found so that the 7 levels are well founded, of which the seventh must be almost at the height of the ground and on it the second level is put on, which is a little smaller than the first and so on until reaching the first level, each step is lined with black and white fabric.

People watch during the night in the tomb waiting for the spirit of their dead to come down and enjoy his offering. This celebration has special characteristics depending on the area, region or town where it is held:

Janitzio, Michoacan

In Janitzio, it is customary to erect an altar over the grave and the women sit resigned and tearful to contemplate the flames of the candles and pray for the dead. At intervals they kneel before the cross that inexcusably presides over the rite, and they remain thoughtful, as if evoking the deceased, longing for their presence.

Oral tradition tells that, during that night, the shadow of Mintzita Corazon, daughter of King Tzintzicha, and that of Itzihuapa, son of Tare and Crown Prince of Janitzio, emerges. Madly in love, they were unable to marry due to the unexpected arrival of the conquerors. Mintzita’s father King already imprisoned, by Nuño de Guzmn the princess wanted to rescue him by offering him the fabulous treasure that was found under the waters, between Janitzio and Pacanda. And when the hard-working Itzihuapa was about to extract it, he was caught by twenty shadows of the rowers who hid it under the waters and who were submerged with it. Itzahuapa became the twenty-first guardian of such fantastic wealth. But on the night of the day of the dead all the guardians of the treasure awake, and they climb the steep slope of the island. The two Princes, Mintzita and Itzihuapa, go to the pantheon to receive the offering of the living to the silver lights of the Moon, the two ghosts mutter affectionate words to each other and, in the uncertain flames of the candles, they hide from prying eyes.

Around 12 o’clock at night on the 1st November, women and children move solemnly, locate the resting places of their loved ones, a bell placed in the arch of the entrance of the pantheon, rings discreetly all night, calling the souls to come to the great ceremony. Throughout the island, the Purepecha songs of sweet and musical cadence echo that implore the rest of the souls of the absent and the happiness of those who remain on earth. Participating in this festival is fulfilling a sacred duty for the dead, who honor those who practice it.

La Huasteca, the Xantolo

Xantolo is a Huasteca word that means “Fiesta de las Animas”, it has a pre-Hispanic origin in the Huasteca region (the area between the north of Veracruz, south of Tamaulipas, southeast of San Luis Potosí, north of Puebla, east of Hidalgo and some areas of Querétaro and Guanajuato) and that over the years has received influences from other origins, the Huastecos offer the cult in these times because not only do they collect the harvest of corn and other fruits, it is also a celebration of respect for the who are no longer present because according to their calendar, on these dates dead relatives visit relatives. The essence of their spirits is present and that is why the smell of fruits, music and light, recall the moments lived on earth, the underworld is present all the time and is very close to the world of the living according to the Huastecs, the body returns to earth, but its soul remains among the living.

Yucatan Peninsula, Janal Pixan

In the Mayan region, more typical of the states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo, the day of the dead has the name “Janal Pixan”, whose Mayan meaning is “Food of Souls” (Janal = food, Pixán = soul or anima), dates are also known as “Time of the deceased.” This tradition begins on October 31, dedicated to the children who died. That day the altar is adorned with cheerful colors, toys and the foods that the infant used to enjoy. The adults’ party is on November 1, where the decorations are soberer, with white tablecloths and, depending on the tasks performed by the person, the elements will be on the altar. The 2nd of November is dedicated to all the saints. After this, the “ochavario” or “bix21” is celebrated, that is, eight days have passed since the death dates began. That day they usually go to the cemetery with prayers and new atole.

In these celebrations, it is customary to put an altar at the entrance with some traditional food and water for what is called “el anima sola”, which refers to animas that do not have a place to go, or no longer they have an offspring or person who remembers them. Large tamales or “mukbil pollo” are usually made, which are traditionally buried, and other foods of the Yucatecan cuisine. There are unique cases, such as that of the “Pomuch”, in Campeche, where the relatives unearth the bones of their deceased, clean them and then wrap them in new and embroidered napkins especially for the occasion, then re-depositing them in their tomb and they are performed the traditional offering with food and drinks.

Mixquic, Mexico City

In the Mayor’s Office of Tlahuac, there is a small town called Mixquic, which means “where there is mesquite”, one of the most visited places during these days since its celebration is attached to Mexican traditions and is carried out together with the village fair. On November 2, “La Alumbrada” takes place, where thousands of candles illuminate the graves decorated with flowers.

The Day of the Dead is considered a celebration of memory and a ritual that favors memory over oblivion. In Mexico, the celebration of the Day of the Dead varies from state to state, from municipality to municipality and from town to town, however throughout the country it has the same principle, to bring families together to welcome their loved ones who return from the beyond.