Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday with a unique history

The altar represents a synthesis of native beliefs and Spanish customs. The event is held in Mexico on November 1st and 2nd. What makes this holiday so special is that people share food with both the living and the dead.

Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday with a unique history
One of Mexico's most celebrated holidays is Day of the Dead, which has its own fascinating backstory. Photo by Valeria Almaraz / Unsplash

As human beings "we have the need to think about whether there is something beyond our departure from this world, but not only from a philosophical reflection; we can have a biological, social, legal or cultural approach," says María Angélica Galicia Gordillo, from the Institute of Anthropological Research (IIA) of the UNAM.

The doctor in Anthropology and master in History and Ethnohistory refers that in the celebration of the Day of the Dead everything is combined, including the dramatic European idea that at death the person goes to heaven or hell, depending on how good or bad he/she was in life. When this conception is mixed with the pre-Hispanic one, what we have now arisen: a notion of "undead death", that our loved ones are gone, but they continue to live with us.

It is impossible to deny that this festivity, especially in large cities, has changed in recent years. The offerings are becoming smaller and smaller, incorporating things that replace the natural; the shredded paper is now made of plastic, as well as the flowers that replace the natural cempasúchil.

Unlike in the past, nowadays this tradition is not associated with religious ideas, and almost no such images are placed or prayed at the altars. In addition, young people are not interested in thinking about the return of the dead.

Fortunately, in the towns, the custom of placing large offerings is still preserved, especially, of reuniting the family, both the living one, as well as the one that is present only through their photographs placed on an altar.

"The Mexican always makes it evident that the family is there, and not only the nuclear one, of parents and children, but the one that includes uncles, cousins, etcetera, so that sharing food with the living and the dead is what makes this celebration wonderful."

We are joyful, a culture full of flowers, dancing, drinking, drunkenness, and, in particular, of family union, "which in the end is what the Day of the Dead is looking for", which is celebrated from October 31, and on November 1 and 2, since the first day, according to the Catholic calendar, corresponds to All Saints, dedicated to the dead children; and the first, to the Faithful Departed, that is to say, to the deceased adults. On November 2nd, the visiting souls begin their return.

The dead come back to visit us

In the altars of the dead, pre-Hispanic customs and those brought by the Spaniards merge: we can find the sweet skulls that remind us of the Mexica tzompantli (or "walls of heads"), together with some religious images (a crucifix, the Virgin Mary, a saint).

Recently, some people even include elements that were previously forbidden, such as images of "death", venerated in its beginnings by "anti-moral people", but now also by common people with the idea that if it protects the bad guys, "it can also take care of those of us who behave well".

The decorations in the cemeteries, the altars, the flowers, and the illuminations, embellish the death, one where the beings we love and who left this world, return to visit us.

Although customs change, some places preserve the most traditional forms. Places like the south of Mexico City, in the Xochimilco, Tláhuac, and Milpa Alta districts, for example, have a deeper cultural experience, which goes beyond placing flowers and lighting a candle on a grave; there, people wait for their dead, smoke a cigarette or get drunk with them, and tell the children that the candle flame moves because the visitors from beyond the grave take the light with them.

The celebration has variations by region. The first of these is what is offered: in Oaxaca, for example, tamales in banana leaves are a must; in Yucatan, cochinita pibil, in Michoacan the decorations in the cemeteries, or the Xantolo in the state of Hidalgo. The important thing for this celebration is to place the food and drinks that the deceased liked, and share them with the living in their memories.

Day of the Dead: Living Expression

According to the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, the offering of the dead must have several essential elements: water, which is offered to the souls to quench their thirst after their long journey and strengthen their return; salt, an element of purification, so that the body is not corrupted on its journey to and from the next year; candles and candles, so that they can reach their ancient places and illuminate the return to their abode.

Also, copal and incense, are fragrances of reverence; flowers, symbols of the festivity for their colors and aromatic trails; petate, for the souls to rest; bread, as a fraternal offering; the portraits of those remembered, and in the case of the "little dead", toys and candies, among other elements.

In 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared this festivity as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, due to its importance and significance as it is a traditional expression -contemporary and living at the same time-, integrating, representative and communitarian.

For the organization, the annual encounter between indigenous peoples and their ancestors fulfills a considerable social function by affirming the role of the individual within society. It also helps to reinforce the cultural and social status of Mexico's native peoples. "The Day of the Dead is considered a celebration of memory and a ritual that privileges remembrance over forgetting."

The festivity is recognized worldwide; it is an element that gives one identity as Mexican and that is why it is important to preserve it.

Although it is not specified how it should be celebrated, since this is particular to each place of the national territory and this allows the cultural manifestations to expand, the important thing is to continue its realization even with its current adaptations. "To think that this celebration should remain immovable does not work", says the researcher.

To preserve the declaration of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, "I bet on the creativity of Mexicans; perhaps constant parameters such as marigold flowers, paper decorations, the typical food of each zone, the drinks, etc., can be proposed."

Above all, what should not be missing is the idea of sharing with the dead. "They come and you have to make them an offering, even if it is only three oranges, two limes, and some candles. You have to keep offering what you can, and decorate as much as you can". As long as the celebration takes place, and families get together, we ensure that the tradition continues.

Let us hope that the Mexican idea of death is preserved, that we continue to laugh about it, that we "eat" it in the form of a candy skull, share a good binge with it, and persist in the idea that death does not mean the end of life. Dying is a natural biological process; if there is one thing that is certain when we are born, it is that we will die, reminds María Angélica Galicia.

Let this celebration continue, even if new elements are combined -some even imported from abroad- if there is no alternative. But let joy prevail and think of death as a step and not as a fatality, concludes the anthropologist.