Have you ever wondered why the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) is celebrated? This Mexican celebration reminds us how finite we are. However, it also teaches us that death is part of life and that we should celebrate it.
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition of pre-Hispanic origin. The main holidays are the 1st and 2nd of November. However, the preparations begin many weeks before and the beauty and complexity of this celebration has attracted the attention of everyone. In fact, UNESCO named it Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2008. Delve into its origins and know the elements that make up this endearing Mexican fiesta!
It’s a fact: nobody escapes death. However, despite the pain that it may cause, from the indigenous people, Mexicans have learned to perceive it as a stage in which we should rejoice because, as the writer Mario Benedetti would say, “death is only a symptom of life.” As proof of this, Mexicans have the celebration known as “Day of the Dead”. This celebration is native to the pre-Hispanic era. In that period, many Mesoamerican ethnic groups worshiped death. Among them was the Mexica / the Aztecs, whose gods in charge of defining the destiny of the souls were Mictecacíhuatl and Mictlantecuhtli. Both were Lords of Mictlan or “place of the dead”. However, to get to Mictlan, the souls had to grapple and overcome a series of obstacles in order to achieve eternal rest.
According to the Florentine Codex, Mictlan was divided according to the type of death. For example, in the Tonatiuh Ichan -house of the sun- entered those warriors who had died on the battlefield. Another place was the Cincalco, home of the god Tonacatecutli; to this place went children, because as being so young, they were considered innocent.
However, for the souls to start the journey, the living were responsible for accompanying them by means of a ritual. This began with the death of a close being. The death was announced with crying and screams issued by the elderly women of the community. Then the deceased was dressed up and put alongside with all his personal belongings. Subsequently, the body was symbolically fed with the most exquisite delicacies.
After four days, the body was taken to be burried or cremated. From that moment on, the soul embarked on a difficult journey. Then, every year for four years, complex ceremonies were held in the place where the ashes or the body of the deceased were found. Thus, this ritual not only helped the souls to rest but also facilitated the grieving process of the relatives.
With the arrival of the European population, this ritual underwent a process of adaption. The celebration of the god of the underworld joined together with the celebration of the deceased and the process was reinvented until it was conceived as we know it now. The Day of the Dead offerings are altars of pre-Hispanic origin. These were dedicated to different deities and were placed on different dates. However, that of the Lord of the Dead, Mictlantecuhtli, was celebrated in the month that we now know as November. This coincidence with All Saints Day was taken advantage of by the evangelizers during the Colony to make it a mix between Christianity and the autochthonous religious beliefs.
Originally, the altars were put a couple of days before November 1 and 2, that is, October 30 or 31 and remained until 3. Now, it is very common that, due to the creative effort that is invested in placing them, we can enjoy them over a longer period of time.
It is generally believed that the souls of the children return to visit on November 1, and that the souls of the adults return on day 2. Or, in even more details: some festivities begin on October 28, which is when people who died in an accident are remembered; on October 30, babies who died before being baptized are remembered; on October 31, children under 12 are celebrated; All Saints Day is November 1 and those who died of natural causes or illness are remembered; and on November 2, after 12 a.m., according to the belief, is when the souls of the deceased leave and the offerings are collected.
Most important elements of the offerings:
1) Photographs of the deceased. It is very common to place portraits of loved ones who are no longer with us.
2) Incense or copal. The smoke that comes from the copal or incense, is the guide so that the dead can arrive with us.
3) Candles. These represent fire and light. Like incense, they work as a guide for souls.
4) Favorite drinks and even complete meals for the deceased, plus water and salt
5) Cempasúchil flower. This spongy-looking flower (Marigold) is also known as “twenty petal flower”. They are mainly used to decorate or create paths that guide the spirits of the dead.
6) Calaveritas (skulls). In ancient times, real skulls were used. Then they were replaced with skulls made with sugar, chocolate or amaranth. Each skull represents a deceased.
7) Pan de muerto. In addition to be delicious, the bread of the dead is the representation of the skeleton of the deceased.
To be able to experience these unique traditions the Mexican way, we have prepared several events before, during and after Día de Muertos, with with Aztec Explorers. See our entire program below:
¨When I’m gone – with any luck many years from now – let me be remembered as Mexicans are. Let bright orange blossoms, the gentle glow of candles and the smell of my favourite foods guide me home. Let me be brought back to life once a year through the love and laughter of those who knew me. Let my memory bring joy to anyone I leave behind¨.
Highlights events with Aztec Explorers during Día de Muertos:
* Saturday 27th of October – Mercado de Jamaica, ornaments Día de Muertos and breakfast: https://www.meetup.com/Internationals-in-Mexico-City-Mexican-Welcome/events/255196926/
* Saturday 27th of October – Sugar skull festivals of Metepec and Toluca (Ferias de Alfeñique): https://www.meetup.com/Internationals-in-Mexico-City-Mexican-Welcome/events/255039497/
* Weekend trip Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th of October: Festival de Calaveras and Day of the Dead parade in Aguascalientes: https://www.meetup.com/Internationals-in-Mexico-City-Mexican-Welcome/events/255219788/
* Sunday 28th of October: Feria de Mole in San Pedro Actopan, Mixquic (+ early visit to the famous Cementary) and Tlahuac (boat trip in traditional Trajinera):
* Sunday 28th of October: open air theatre by traditional boat (trajinera) in Xochimilco; “Caterina en Trajinera”: https://www.meetup.com/Internationals-in-Mexico-City-Mexican-Welcome/events/255194704/
* Thursday 1st of November: Día de Muertos in Mexico City: San Angel, Coyoacan and Iztacalco (3 Barrios Mágicos): https://www.meetup.com/Internationals-in-Mexico-City-Mexican-Welcome/events/255178766/
* Thursday 1st of November: Día de Muertos in Mixquic and Tlahuac: https://www.meetup.com/Internationals-in-Mexico-City-Mexican-Welcome/events/255596088/
* Friday 2nd of November: day trip to the famous State of Michoacan, exploring Patzcuaro, Isla Janitzio and Tzintzuntzan (this year a LONG day trip due to 0 hotel availability):