Mexico is a country rich in culture and traditions. An authentic expression of this culture is the Day of the Dead, or “Día de los Muertos” (as we call it in Spanish), which is a day that characterizes our country and reflects part of our identity.
On November 2, when you walk down the streets you see can see skeletons, brightly colored sugar skulls and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) whose parts resemble bones, everywhere. Festivities start the night of November 1st when families gather around graves of the deceased and or make altars for them at home. Cemeteries become gathering places and in them most of the Day of the Dead celebration takes place. People bring offerings, which consists of food and flowers in order to honor the lives of the ones who have died. There are different ways of celebrating “Día de los Muertos” depending on the region, but they all share the same core idea — to remember the dead and celebrate with them during the night that they come back to Earth.
The origins of the Day of the Dead can be traced back 3,000 years. Prehispanic civilizations in the area we now know as Mexico performed rituals to commemorate their ancestor’s lives. Great ceremonies, dances and feasts took place. People rejoiced at the prospect of a night were spirits would come back to visit them. These polytheist civilizations merged with Catholicism after the Spanish conquest, giving rise to what we now know as the Day of the Dead. This is why one can sometimes find religious symbols, such as crosses, on altars. However, it is important to keep in mind that Mexico is 87% Catholic, so this celebration is mostly practiced by those who follow this religion. Nevertheless, it is taught in schools for educational purposes.
The altar is one of the most significant elements of this celebration, because it is the place where spirits are believed to return to visit their loved ones. They can have different levels depending on the tradition, but all of them possess the following components:
Picture of the deceased: to honor their time living.
Water: to soothe the thirst of the dead after their long journey back to this dimension.
Food: families cook the deceased’s favorite foods so they can enjoy them once again when they return to Earth each year.
Candles: represent hope and they are seen as the light that will guide spirits back to Earth (generally positioned in a cross symbolizing the four cardinal points).
Cempasúchil flowers: they are native to Mexico and have great symbolic value. They are probably what distinguishes “Día de Muertos” the most, with their unique smell and bright orange colors. Their petals are used to mark the path the dead should follow towards their altars.
Papel picado: also a great representative of Mexican festivities. This is colorful paper with cut-out shapes (used as decoration).
Arc: it represents the entrance to the underworld.
Possessions of the deceased: so they can remember their lives on Earth (if the spirit is a child it is common to see his or her favorite toys).
The perception of death, along with the celebrations that surround it, is one of the main aspects shaping Mexican culture. Throughout our history different traditions and rituals have developed to honor, venerate, daunt and even mock death. Nowadays people even write small poems or sets of verses called “calaveritas” (literally meaning little skulls) to transmit amusing messages about death and portray people as if they were already dead. Thus approaching the subject in a whole different manner. I remember reading “calaveritas” as a child that mocked death by explaining how it hadn’t come knocking on your door yet because it was too clumsy to get to you.
What is special about the Day of The Dead is that it does not evoke feelings of absence and sadness. Instead, it creates a sense of bliss and invokes the vivid presence of the ones who are no longer with us. The dead and the living come together to celebrate. Death fills houses with life in this unique festivity.