The Day of the Dead is one of the most typical and representative celebrations of Mexico in the world, as evidenced by the festive character bring Mexican to death. This representation is perhaps the most important tradition of Mexican popular culture and one of the best known internationally; is even considered and protected by the UNESCO as Heritage of the Humanity.
Its origin dates back to the time of the indigenous of Mesoamerica, such as the Aztecs, Mayans, Purepecha, Nahua and Totonac, whose rituals where they celebrated the life of the ancestors were made by these civilizations for at least the past 3,000 years.
The festival that became later on the Day of the Dead was celebrated in the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar (near the beginning of August) and was chaired by Mictecacihuatl god, known as the “Lady of Death” (nowadays whom we call “La Catrina”). The festivities lasted for a month and were dedicated to the celebration of children and the lives of deceased relatives.
It was with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores to the America in the 15th century, when the attempt to convert Native Americans to Catholicism, Christian evangelizers who accepted this “pagan practice” of the indigenous, moving their festival into early November to coincide with the Catholic holidays of ‘All Saints and Souls Day’.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout the country on 1 and 2 November, as it is believed that the souls of children return on November 1 and those of adults on November 2nd. During these two days, families used to perform various rituals that vary according to the region, since it is believed that the souls of the dead return those nights to enjoy the dishes and flowers offered relatives. Within the typical rituals include:
- The Altar of the Dead: Built on a table or shelf, they are constituted by levels that represent the strata of the existence. The most common are two levels that symbolize heaven and earth, but the most traditional is the altar of seven levels which are the steps to get to heaven and to be able to rest in peace. It is composed by the image of the saint or deceased to remember, items like salt symbolizing the purification of the spirit, food and favorite fruits of the deceased, cross, incense, arch that alludes the entry to the world of the dead, itched paper that incorporates the joy of the festival, candles, water, flowers, skulls, alcoholic beverages and personal items.
- The Famous lithographies (also called “skulls”) consisting of small verses where “La Catrina”(the death) jokes with real-life characters, referring to some peculiarity of these and ending with phrases where it is stated that will be taken to the grave.
- Cleanliness and decoration of the graves with colorful wreaths, commonly used marigold, since it is a symbol of the radiance of the Sun, which is considered to be the origin of everything.
- It takes serenade to the cemeteries to celebrate the return of the dead who visit their relatives.
- The waits of monarch butterflies, since according to the beliefs Purepecha, represent the spirits of their ancestors. Therefore, every year Mazahuas expect, with offerings of wax and copal, the arrival of these “messengers of the gods”, as they call the monarch butterflies that fly each year by millions from the forests of Canada and the United States to the forests of our country, to complete their reproductive cycle.
Thus “The Death” is conceived in Mexico as a new stage where the dead comes, walks, watches the altar, smell, taste and hear, thus being not a foreign to us but a living presence in our traditions.