In Mexico, death isn't frightening: it's a natural, inevitable process. "A Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it and celebrates it; it is one of his favourite toys and his most steadfast love."(1) Every year, Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead, honouring their deceased with a profusion of traditional dishes.
The Day of the Dead – el Día de los Muertos – is an emblematic Mexican celebration, which may seem both fascinating and disconcerting for Europeans. While death is often taboo in our culture, in Mexico it's an integral part of life and a recurring theme in popular culture. Thus, rather than being morbid and sad, the Day of the Dead is always joyous and colourful.
The cult of the dead has been profoundly anchored in Mexican culture for nearly three thousand years. For numerous pre-Columbian peoples, life and death were intimately related and represented two complementary, inseparable poles of human existence and Creation.
An ancient Aztec rite
It was an ancient Aztec rite that gave birth to the current festival of the dead(2). The ceremonies honouring the dead coincided with the end of the maize, pumpkin and bean harvest, resulting in huge banquets shared among everyone, whether living or dead. The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo(3) described the festival as a mosaic of colours and tastes.
When the Spanish conquistadors first set foot in Mexico, they were appalled by these barbaric, primitive practices. To convert and subdue the native people, they changed the date of the festivities so that they would coincide with All Saints’ Day and the Day of the Dead in November. There then started a long process of cultural merging, during which Catholic customs gradually blended with pre-Hispanic rites. Today, Mexicans continue to honour the souls of the dead, who join the world of the living to party with them from 31 October to 2 November.