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Day of the Dead: A Festive Mexican Celebration

By Maureen Dietrich, October 2004 Issue of the Pacific Pearl
Día de los Muertos Celebrants

First-time visitors to Mazatlán (or Mexico) who land on our shores at the end of October through the beginning of November often find themselves in souvenir stores standing before smiling ceramic skeletons dressed in weird and wonderful hats and loose, colorful clothing, wondering “what is this all about?”

Skeletons are not generally considered a souvenir in North America or Europe. What the unsuspecting tourist has encountered is the celebration of an ancient, prehispanic, joyful Mexican tradition of honoring deceased family members.

Every year on November 1st and 2nd, the Day of the Dead finds millions of families throughout Mexico gathering at the gravesites of relatives, bringing a picnic of the deceased's favorite food and drink, decorating the grave with bright, large flowers (such as chrysanthemums and marigolds) and generally enjoying the ambiance of a community celebration.

Traditionally, November 1st is dedicated to departed children (referred to as the Day of the Little Angels) and November 2nd to adults. The families remember their relatives with stories about their lives and believe the souls of the dead return and surround them. In their homes, families construct altars in honor of their ancestors and decorate them with items to entice the souls to return and celebrate.

Día de los Muertos Alter

In Mazatlán, altars are erected not only in homes, but also in schools, businesses, malls and occasionally on the street in an effort to reinforce the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead, as opposed to the increasing popularity of Halloween among young people. No matter its location, every altar is three-tiered and traditionally displays some fundamental items. Most important is a photo of the person being remembered. Also included are bright colored tissue paper in purple (for pain), white (for hope) and pink (for the celebration) cut in intricate designs. On the top level of the altar four candles are placed to represent the cardinal points and light the way for the soul to return. Three candy skulls are placed on the second tier, which represent the Holy Trinity. On the third level is a large skull, which represents the Giver of Life. In some cases, a small burner is lit to dispel bad spirits and leave the way clear for the dead soul to attend the celebration. Pan de Muerto, a special sweet egg-batter Day of the Dead bread, is also placed on the altar accompanied by chocolates, candy, fruit and the deceased's favorite food and alcoholic beverage.

Aztec Skull Rack

The Dead of the Day celebration is a ritual which has been practiced in Mexico for over 3,000 years. Originally held during the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontli (late July, early August), it was presided over by Mictecacihautl, the “Lady of the Dead,” who was believed to have died at birth. During this period in the Aztec civilization, skulls were kept as trophies which symbolized death and rebirth. The Aztecs viewed death as a continuation of life, using the skulls during the celebration as a way to honor the dead.

With the arrival of the Spaniards 500 years ago came attempts to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. In a vain effort to quell what the Spanish priests considered to be a sacrilegious rite, the conquistadors moved the celebration to coincide with Christianity's All Hallows Eve on November 1st. The result is that the modern Day of the Dead observance is a blend of ancient Aztec rituals with the occasional Christian symbol added.

Mexico's ancient festival of honoring the dead is an important ritual which recognizes the inter-relation between life and death. It is a time for us to remember those who have left us, and welcome them back into our hearts to share memories and good times.