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The Day of the Dead - Mexico
EL DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS (The Day of the Dead)
One of the most famous celebrations in Mexico, El Día de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is a unique mixture of Catholic and pre-Hispanic traditions, in which Mexicans pay homage to their deceased relatives with some of the most beautiful and unusual traditions found in the country. This holiday is actually celebrated between November 1st and 2nd and is collectively referred to as Los Días de Los Muertos. The largest celebrations fall on the 2nd of November.
The modern celebration of the Day of the Dead is a blend of pre-Hispanic rituals and Catholic traditions. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived to Mexico over 500 years ago, they found that many of the indigenous cultures of the region were deeply involved in worshipping death and viewed death as an integral part of life. The Aztecs especially had a rich culture that recognized and even celebrated death. Among other gods and goddesses, the Aztecs widely worshipped the Death God Mictlantecutli. They also displayed the skulls of human sacrifices in elaborate walls known as Tzompantli.
Needless to say, the Spanish found all these skulls and skeletons a bit shocking, and they quickly attempted to eradicate what they saw as frightening and pagan customs. However, the efforts of the Spanish to destroy these ancient cultures only resulted in an evolution of the Aztec’s celebration of death. As the Spanish spread Catholicism throughout Mexico, the worship of death was absorbed into several Catholic holidays and transformed into the modern Day of the Dead.
A similar process occurred throughout Mexico, as many of the other major indigenous cultures in Meso-America strongly incorporated death into their culture and rituals. This is especially true of the Mayans of southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, who have their own unique culture that involves an open recognition and celebration of death as part of life.
Today, the Days of the Dead coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In Mexico, November 1st, El Día de Todos Santos (All Saints Day) is devoted to saints and deceased children. November 2nd El Día de Todas Almas (All Souls Day) is dedicated to deceased adults.
During this time, it is thought that the dead come back to briefly visit their loved ones and share a meal, a drink, and the company of the living. The traditions of the Days of the Dead vary widely from region to region. However, a common custom throughout the country is to gather in cemeteries or to host relatives and friends at homes to pay respects to the dead.
Families typically arrive at the local panteón (cemetery) with armfuls of flowers to decorate the graves of their loved ones. In some cases, there is an all night candlelight vigil at the gravesite, where relatives enjoy a picnic and symbolically share food with the deceased.
Another tradition is to set an elaborate ofrenda (altar) honoring the dead. These ofrendas can be a simple display of photos and flowers, or elaborate designs with papel picado (cut paper designs), flowers, tiny sugar skeletons, and mounds of flowers. In every altar, you will find offerings of the favorite foods and drink of the deceased. Bottles of tequila, wines, and cigarettes may adorn the altar.
The ovens of Mexican are put to good use during this time to bake the traditional Pan de Muerto, which is also found as an offering in the ofrendas. This bread takes the shape of round buns with crossed bones. The bread is flavored with anis seeds and sprinkled with colored sugar.
Recreation of the Wall of Skulls
Day of the Dead
Learn more about Mexico:
Great Sites on Mexico:
Aztec Gardens - A guide to the pre-Hispanic plants and foods of Mexico, with ancient recipes from Mesoamerica. A great resource for the teacher, student, amateur, ethno botanist, chief, or anyone interested in the plants and foods of Mexico and Mesoamerica.
Festival of Mexico Folk Arts - Mexican folk art information, Mexican toys and games including loteria cards, Mexican culture and folk art buying tips, Folk art from Chiapas, Oaxaca, Huichol folk art, and more!
Day of the Dead - Learn about Mexico