The Day of the Dead, a bridge between two worlds
The Mexican 'El Día de los Muertos' (the Day of the Dead) originates from a cultural blend of pre-Columbian rituals and Catholic tradition. It marks a time when the living and the deceased are as one, to celebrate the importance of living together. They reunite, both in the home and in the cemetery, for a festive meal of the deceased’s favourite food and drink.
A cultural blend from two continents
The Mexican Day of the Dead is the result of a cultural blend. This festival has both Mesoamerican roots and origins in Catholicism, which the Spanish introduced in the 16th century.
In the Pre Columbian era, the Aztecs’ religious beliefs and practices were closely related to death as it was considered necessary for life. Human sacrifices, for example, were committed with the aim of preserving life, so that the sun god Huitzilopochtli could live and continue to light up the world. To pay homage to the dead, they held two festivals twenty days apart. The first, Miccaihuitontli, honoured deceased children, and the second, Hueymiccalhuitl, was devoted to adults. They depended on the farming calendar, in particular the cycle of maize cultivation (July-August). Both the living and the departed reunited to share the grand banquet marking the beginning of the harvest. The deceased were invited to leave their miserable underground homes to join in a festival devoted to eating and dancing on the graves. Tears of grief were not welcome as, according to Aztec belief, they made the return journey slippery and dangerous for the deceased.
After the Spanish colonists arrived in the 16th century, the reign of the Aztecs came to an end but the Day of the Dead continued, aligned with its Catholic equivalent. The children’s festival, renamed El Día de los Innocentes, is held on 1 November, All Saints’ Day, and the adults’ festival, El Día de los Muertos is celebrated the following day, All Souls’ Day or the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.
“Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead”
Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead both in the family home and at the cemetery. They invite their departed relatives to join them around the family table by building altars, called ofrendas, with a photograph of the deceased as the centrepiece. The offerings represent the four elements: earth, water, fire and air. Candles are lit to symbolise fire while intricately-cut paper decorations represent air and the wind. The family pours water into a glass and places a little salt next to it, so that the soul can quench its thirst and purify itself after its long journey from beyond. According to popular belief, travelling souls are embodied in the monarch butterflies which are profuse in Mexico at that time of year. The deceased’s favourite food represents the earth. For some, this will be tacos, for others chicken mole (sauce made from pepper and cocoa) or a tamale (stuffed corn flour wrap cooked in corn husks). Traditionally, people give each other calaveritas, small sugar skulls whose bright colours represent vitality. Both the living and departed family members share the pan de Muerto, a sweet bread in the shape of bones. Amaranth grain is also placed on the ofrenda as a snack for the returning deceased. During the Aztec period, people served pulque (alcohol made from agave) to connect with each other, whereas today, there is a toast with the deceased’s favourite drink.
Those who make the procession to the cemetery take a picnic. The graves are cleaned and decorated with an abundance of yellow marigolds and amaranth flowers. The family lights candles to guide the souls and leaves baskets of food.
The community meticulously prepare the food, regardless of whether the meal is eaten in the home or at the cemetery, as it is a moment of sharing and living together with the dead. Mexicans spend the whole night at the cemetery, as both the living and the deceased drink, eat, talk and sing. Together.
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BRANDES, Stanley, 2006. Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. Oxford : Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 9781405152488.
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