Day of the Dead, Part I: Honoring the Departed, Celebrating Life, in Mexico

ICTMN Staff
10/30/11

Mexico is where Day of the Dead began. When the Spaniards arrived, Indigenous Peoples had been celebrating their ancestors annually for at least 3,000 years. But the conquerors, thinking it just one of many rituals that marked Aztecs and others as savages, killed the month-long festival by moving it from early August to November 1 and 2, aligning the festivities with the Catholic holidays All Saints Day and All Souls Day, respectively.

In doing so, the conquerors stripped Day of the Dead of much of its meaning—an observation of life as a dream and death as its awakening. At least they would have, if the Aztecs and other Indigenous Peoples hadn't gone on practicing their traditions behind the scenes, as they did with most aspects of Spanish-imposed Catholicism.

"The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic," Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University, told the Arizona Republic. "They didn't separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures."

Today, the juxtaposition has yielded a national holiday that unites Mexico’s varied cultures, forming a bridge between the indigenous and those of European heritage. Just about every Mexican honors deceased loved ones, be it with a graveside picnic in the countryside among rural indigenous, or an altar set up in the living room containing offerings and pictures of deceased family members, and decorated with colorful objects.

Preparation starts during the third week of October, with the street markets well stocked with sugar calaveras, or skulls. Plant stalls offer pot after pot of chrysanthemums or marigolds, whose petals guide the visiting souls back to the land of the living for their annual visit. Women spend days preparing molé and other traditional dishes.

Not Just for the Dead But Also the Living

Mexicans defy and laugh in the face of death; indeed, it is thought that the Spaniards misinterpreted this attitude as mockery. But far from taking death lightly, Mexicans ponder it along with their life while chiming the church bells to summon the spirits. Thus, Day of the Dead is a time to reflect on the gift of life and what you do with it.

Day of the Dead altar, movie theater, Mexico City

Even those who don’t go so far as to hang out at the cemetery at least create altars in their homes to honor those who have died. It’s also not uncommon to find altars in shopping malls, movie theaters, department stores and other public-type places. Rather than being set up with specific photos of the deceased, the decorations are of skeleton figures, many of them life-sized.

calavera in the zocalo

Mexico City’s government holds a contest on the Zócalo, or main square, every year in which people compete for a prize for the most imaginative paper-maché figure. The result is bigger-than-life skeleton effigies arranged in casual poses—lying down and leaning on an elbow, for instance—arrayed around this most colossal of public spaces.

In the rest of the country, celebrants hark back to their ancient practices. Some of the most spectacular festivities are found on the island of Janitzio in Patzcuaro, in the state of Michoacan in Oaxaca, in Huejutla (State of Hidalgo), Chiapa de Corzo (Chiapas), Jesus Maria (Nayarit), Mixquic (Federal District) and even Tecate (Baja, California). According to Mexonline.com, people flock to them from around the world. Residents decorate gravesites with their beloveds’ favorite foods and possessions and in many cases hold an overnight candlelight vigil. Cemeteries glow with candlelight as families picnic on the graves, communing with loved ones on this day when the portal between the two worlds is opened.

Dishes and Symbols

Food is an important part of this celebration. The deceased’s favorite comestibles are made and brought as ofrendas, or offerings. Luckily those happen to be favorites of the living as well.

According to Mexonline.com, a website devoted to all things Mexican, dishes can include black molé with chicken or turkey. When available, duck is the preferred choice. In fact, Day of the Dead celebrations on Janitzio begin with a ceremonial duck hunt. Later that day, the roasted duck becomes part of the celebratory meal.

“The most vivid and moving Day of the Dead celebrations take place on the island of Janitzio in Lago de Patzcuaro,” says Mexonline.com. “Here, at the crack of dawn (on November 1st) the Purepechan Indians get the festivities going with a ceremonial duck hunt. At midnight, the cooked duck and other zesty edibles are brought to the cemetery in the flickering light of thousands of candles. Those visitors who come are in for an awesome spectacle as the women pray and the men chant throughout the chilly night. Other candlelit ceremonies take place in the nearby towns of Tzintzuntzan (the ancient capital of the Purepechan people), Jarauaro and Erongaricuaro.”

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is baked at this time of year, flavored with anise or ground cinnamon. It’s a staple, with a twist: the finished product is fashioned into a skull and adorned in icing with the name of the deceased that it honors. Tequila is abundant, of course, as is atole, a traditional drink of cornmeal and water, flavored with fruits.

November 1, All Saints’ Day, honors departed children. Their graves are decorated with balloons and toys; little girls in traditional pinafores perform ceremonies as their families watch. It is a way of teaching them to honor the dead; the lesson begins with learning death is not the enemy, or the end. The graves are tended—cleaned and decorated—and tokens of the deceased person’s life are left behind. Tequila runs abundantly, along with mescal or pulque. Amid the reminiscing, people write mock epitaphs and tell funny anecdotes, as well as pen poems known as calaveras (yes, that is “skulls”).

Celebrations vary from town to town and region to region. But all are a mix of traditions, melding into a single theme: the worship of the continuum between life and death, the celebration and love of life and of the people we have loved and lost—and whom we will join all too soon.

Around the World

Today, Day of the Dead inspires celebrations worldwide, especially in the United States, many of whose Mexican immigrants are indigenous. In California, Arizona and many other states there are exhibitions, parties and ceremonies. Much of the rest of Latin America observes the Day of the Dead too, with festivities in Guatemala, Brazil and Bolivia (the latter on November 8).

Between now and November 2, Indian Country Today Media Network will bring you a look at how Day of the Dead is being celebrated outside Mexico. On Halloween itself, "Day of the Dead, Part II: Re-Made in America" offers a tour of the holiday around the U.S., and on November 1 we'll bring you the world with "Day of the Dead, Part III: Blending Traditions." Then on Wednesday, the Day of the Dead, take a video tour.

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