Day of the Dead / Día de Muertos in México: meaning, origin and travel tips (Trip, Excursion, tour, from Mexico City)

Have you ever wondered why the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) is celebrated?
This Mexican celebration 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!

Day of the Dead - Michoacan - Tzintzuntzan

Above: Purépecha girls lightning up the candles on the grave of their recently deceased grandfather, Tzintzuntzan, State of Michoacan – By Aztec Exporers – Peter Winckers

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.

This celebration is native to the pre-Hispanic era. In that period, many Mesoamerican ethnic groups worshiped death. Among them was the Aztecs, whose gods in charge of defining the destiny of the souls were Mictecacíhuatl and Mictlantecuhtli. Both were Lords of Mictlán, or “place of the dead”. However, to get to Mictlan, the souls had to 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 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 October 31 / November 1, and that the souls of the adults return on November 1 / November 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.

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