What's Day of the Dead and why it is one of Mexico's most important traditions?

One of Mexico's most important traditions is the Day of the Dead. This festivity has taken a lot of boom during the last few years.

A calaca (a colloquial Spanish name for skeleton) is a figure of a skull or skeleton (usually human) commonly used for decoration during the Mexican Day of the Dead festival, although they are made all year round. Tracing their origins from Aztec imagery, calacas are frequently shown with marigold leaves and foliage.. Image: Flickr
A calaca (a colloquial Spanish name for skeleton) is a figure of a skull or skeleton (usually human) commonly used for decoration during the Mexican Day of the Dead festival, although they are made all year round. Tracing their origins from Aztec imagery, calacas are frequently shown with marigold leaves and foliage.. Image: Flickr

The Day of the Dead in Mexico consists basically of remembering the dead through the placement of altars and offerings, which carry elements such as marigold flowers, sugar skulls, dead man's bread, salt, water, a cross, and the food preferred by the deceased, among other elements.

The altars of the dead are placed in the house or pantheons, where the nights of the 1st and 2nd of November are held. There are versions that indicate that this celebration dates back to pre-Hispanic times. However, contrary to what we have been told about the pre-Hispanic origin of the Day of the Dead, some specialists point out that it is a younger tradition.

Elsa Malvido, professor and researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), points out in research that the origin of the ceremonies and festivities related to the Day of the Dead "are clearly Spanish, colonial, Christian and in some cases pagan Roman, taught by friars, priests and other Europeans to the Indians and mestizos".

In an essay published by Conaculta (now the Ministry of Culture), the researcher assures that "the celebrations of All Saints and Faithful Departed Persons have been celebrations to be kept in the Catholic world, but Mexican intellectuals made them Mexica and pre-Hispanic, and anthropologists have believed it.

And in this regard, she points out that it was during the government of Lázaro Cárdenas when the Mexican was identified with the most developed pre-Hispanic group at the arrival of the conquerors, the Mexicas, and they were attributed ceremonies that ignored the 300 years of Spanish colonization, a century of independence and ten more years of revolution.

"To understand that the intellectuals of that time rescued and recreated some popular colonial, Catholic and/or Roman pagan customs, and assigned them a new meaning, among them the feasts of All Saints and Faithful Deceased, giving them a pre-Hispanic and national meaning, difficult to prove but easy to believe".

The specialist exposes the origin of the celebration of All Saints and Faithful Departed, and explores the way in which they were retaken in Mexico with the arrival of the Spaniards. The supposed pre-Hispanic origin of the Day of the Dead was promoted by the government as a way to foster nationalism.

"The majority of ethnologists, archeological anthropologists trained at the National School of Anthropology and History, unconditional support of the Cardinal ideology, have written about the Day of the Dead by participating in the 'traditional' idea of the pre-Hispanic origin of this custom. At their most, they accept the possibility of syncretism with Catholic rites and have tried at all costs to bring November 1 and 2 into the Mexica ritual calendar, considering it as general to the Mexican territory of the 20th century, although in many places it is alien to them.

Malvido recognizes that regardless of the origin of the Day of the Dead, Mexicans have a close relationship with death.

"It's not that I'm particularly interested in demystifying a false idea about Mexicans and their pathological love of death. The key is to put in place, with documented bases, serious, the change of funeral customs, to better understand why we have this or that attitude and not another; to know that the conception of death is the product of the manipulative imposition that power groups have on our life cycle, and to be aware that rituals, like us, are perishable and modifiable, because otherwise anthropology and history would not have what to do. (...)".

And she concludes that "The Mexicans of the 19th century suffered two separations, one from Spain and the other from the Church; a century of internal wars and foreign invasions; migrations from countries previously vetoed; they were favored by the advance of science with preventive medicine and its fight against the contagion of diseases which meant a new sanitary attitude. All this modified a festivity of three centuries of Christian culture, turning the celebration of All Saints into a "democratic pretext of the Day of the Dead', where the approach of humans to a family and secular death allowed them to break with ancient rites and create new ones after the Revolution, neither better nor worse, simply human, in the face of the feared Death".

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What the Day of the Dead offering in Mexico means

It is a fundamental element of this celebration in which the bereaved have the belief that the spirit of their deceased returns from the world of the dead.

For Mexicans, the Day of the Dead celebration is one of the most important in the religious and cultural calendar, as it is a tradition derived from syncretism resulting from long cultural processes.

The celebration is so transcendent in cultural terms that in 2003, UNESCO declared the indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead in Mexico as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

According to the text 'La festividad indígena dedicada a los muertos en México', edited by the National Council for Culture and the Arts (formerly Conaculta, now the Ministry of Culture), the complex cultural framework around the dead has materialized a symbolic and ritual architecture in the different cultural spheres of the Mexican Republic.

This is expressed in an infinite number of plastic manifestations, many of them of an "ephemeral" nature, such as the splendorous arches of cempasúchil (symbolic flower of the celebration) and the cosmogonic representations implicit in the arrangement and logic of the offerings; in the ceremonial culinary; in the organization of ritual spaces, as well as in dance, music and song.

The same text points out that since the 1940s it has been said that Mexico is an eschatological and morbid country; that its inhabitants mock death, play with it and eat it virtually converted into sugar candies; it has even been said that in Mexico even death is sweet.

All the peoples of the world have offered food to their close dead, to the glorious ancestors and to the protective gods of death; this is nothing new. Both ancient and current cultures continue to do so, what has varied is the form of ritual, time and space where the offering is made.

Although it has been insisted that it was the Egyptians and Tibetans who dedicated an important part of their lives and celebrations to the "beyond", we know that the fear of death is and has been universal and that the difference lies in the fact that those cultures left writings that have been preserved and translated into our languages, and that they permeated almost all the religions that preceded them, including the Catholic religion.

It is a fundamental element of this celebration in which the bereaved have the belief that the spirit of their deceased returns from the world of the dead to live with the family on that day, thus consoling and comforting them through loss.

In the celebration of the Day of the Dead, the offering has become the tangible element of such syncretism, shaped as follows: it is placed in a room, on a table or shelf whose levels represent the strata of existence.

The most common are the two-level altars, representing heaven and earth, while the three-level altars add the concept of purgatory to this vision.

There are also the seven-level altars that symbolize the steps necessary to reach heaven and thus rest in peace. This is considered the traditional altar par excellence. In its elaboration, certain basic elements must be considered. Each of the steps is lined with black and white cloth and has a different meaning.

On the first step is placed the image of a saint to whom one is devoted. The second step is intended for the souls in purgatory; it is useful because through it the soul of the deceased obtains permission to leave that place in case he is there.

Salt should be placed on the third step, an element that symbolizes the purification of the spirit for the children in purgatory. In the fourth step, the main character is another central element of the feast of the Day of the Dead: the bread, which is offered as food to the souls that pass through it. In the fifth is placed the food and favorite fruits of the deceased.

On the sixth step are the photographs of the deceased and those who are remembered through the altar. Finally, the seventh step is placed a cross formed by seeds or fruits, such as hawthorn and lime.