The Day of the Dead is one of the great Mexican popular festivals and has its origins in the pre-Hispanic world. The ancient Aztecs celebrated Mictecacíhuatl, the Lady of Death. The Catholic missionaries, so skillful at masking pagan and animist ceremonies adapting them to the new creed, diluted it on All Saints’ Day.
For Día de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2, Mexicans build altars in their homes and in public spaces, decorated with intense orange-colored native flowers. Also, water is placed – to represent a symbol of the life -,candles, bread of dead and photos and clothes of the deceased of the family members. The image of the skull is present everywhere. It’s always been a pleasure to enter Mexican handicraft shops and see how the skull and death, far from the tremendous (negative) concept they have in the Catholic religion, are fun and colorful elements that serve to create art.
Another example is the figures of the Catrinas, skeletons topped by a skull with a broad smile that exemplifies the de-dramatization of death and the desire to live and laugh. The first Catrina was painted by the cartoonist José Posada and the great Diego Rivera was commissioned to make it famous in one of his murals. Today it’s the emblem of the Day of the Dead. Of course, that day they visit the pantheons and cemeteries. The Day of the Dead, the relationship with death in short, is a syncretic spectacle in rural Mexico.
The feast of the dead is also very important and celebrated throughout the country, especially in areas with a strong indigenous culture. The tradition orders that on day 2, a meal is prepared in which the main dishes are the guaguas of bread: figurines that represent the deceased. They are served with purple laundry, a drink made from corn, blackberries and fruit pieces. In the Andean cosmogony, the dead pass to another world, but they do not disappear – so that dialogue with them is possible. On that day, the families visit the cemeteries, dressed in their finery, and carry food and drink, including some of the utensils used by the decease. The melodies that were most loved by the deceased are sung and danced.
The Aymara culture also honored death, but as a natural transition to another life, without major mourning. During these two days (Nov. 1 and 2), altars are placed before tombs and niches where food, drinks, candies, flowers and candles are placed. And two very special elements: ladders made with bread (the ascent to the heavens) and the so-sowawa, a sponge cake with a human form that represents the dead to whom it is honored.
On day 1, usually a suckling pig with corn tamales to eat at home is prepared; In the afternoon, all the families go to the cemeteries to prepare the altars in which food and water are offered to the deceased. Throughout the night the deceased are watched; They are prayed over, but also sung and danced about to help honor them and, above all, they eat a lot, with products typical of each region, all washed down with chicha.
Día de Muertos is also celebrated with local variations in Guatemala, Nicaragua and other Latin American countries.