Day of the Dead: When Mexicans invite Death into their Homes

Celebrating death? 
Day of the Dead is approaching fast, and Mexico is preparing to receive this popular celebration. It is so big, that it has been declared by Unesco as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Understanding death from another perspective and even laughing at it is part of the spirit of this celebration.
I’ll share some facts about the celebration of the Day of the Dead, which undoubtedly is one of the most important parties for Mexicans.
Origins of the holiday
An indigenous tomb dated over 2500 years ago.
The origins of Día de Muertos date back to long before the Spanish conquest; however, today this tradition is a fusion of Mexican and European culture; because with the arrival of the Spaniards also comes the Christianity that introduces the celebration and the images of saints, crosses and some fruits that did not exist in America. According to the Catholic calendar, the first day of November is dedicated to All Saints Day and to the All Souls. According to the belief of the people, the first is dedicated to the “little dead“, those who died as children, and the second to those who died in adulthood.
Day of the Dead goes all the way back to Mesoamerica, during the pre-Hispanic times, when different indigenous groups honored their ancestors with different rituals and offerings. According to the belief, the type of death was related to the paradise that would reach in the afterlife.

  • If you had died in combat or giving birth, you would be awaited by the God of war, Huitzilopochtli. It was a  privileged place for the brave. After living there, you returned to Earth reincarnated in a bird.
  • On the other hand, if your death had been natural, another God would be waiting for you. In this type of tomb, objects were placed upon the body to help them sort their way through. The could be arrows, jewelry or even food.

Getting ready for the afterlife

An altar in Ocotepec, Morelos. for the recently deceased. Their silhouette is mimicked with their own clothes and a skull made of chocolate for his head. Then, all the elements of an offering.
The dead were accompanied by a hairless dog, called Xoloitzcuintle (in pre-Hispanic times it was part of the diet of some indigenous people— YUCK!) which, once the death arrived at their destination, should be given in offering to the god of the dead.

To Mexicans, death is a part of the cycle of life, and don’t fear the endless representations of skulls, tombs and candle-lit crosses. 

In different states of Mexico, various activities are carried out to commemorate this date.
  • People set altars in their homes, their work, and public places.
  •  In the cemeteries, for example, on the night of November 1, relatives are going to visit their dead. In the tomb they build their altars, they dine and spend the night there, perhaps even accompanied by the music of the mariachis.

The Altar

An offerings altar for a family.

The importance of the Day of the Dead in Mexico makes cities, towns, and homes filled with altars dedicated to the deceased who return in these days to live with their relatives who are still alive.

The offerings and altars have a great symbolism. In them,  objects that the deceased used or liked are placed. It is believed everything in the altar is something they can use or enjoy in the afterworld.
The offering that is mounted on an altar of different levels, the first two days of November, is a tribute to the deceased who visit the irrelatives at this time. It is made up, among other things, of the typical Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead), a dessert made out of pumpkin and Mexican cuisine dishes that in life were to the liking of the deceased.
Pan de muerto: A sweet bread made with sugar and orange, used to represent a dead body, with the stripes being the bones, and the ball on top being the skull.
Also, ornaments like the characteristic flowers of cinderbush, chopped paper, candles, sugar skulls and incense of copal.
An altar I made for my grandparents two years ago, with the basic elements: salt, water, candles, flowers, fruit, and TEQUILA! My grandma loved it 😛
For their elaboration, flowers are used (intense yellow flower that will guide the souls of the dead) food (sugar skulls, dead bread, squash, mezcal, atole, tequila) water, paper, portraits of the deceased or cigarettes.

Day of the dead Today

Nowadays, Day of the Dead is a widely known tradition all over the world. While it is celebrated in other parts of the globe, the Mexican tradition is unique.

Even James Bond had to have a piece of it in Spectre! 

day of the dead
The scene where day of the dead plays in Spectre

Watch how it is celebrated in other parts of Mexico

3 thoughts on “Day of the Dead: When Mexicans invite Death into their Homes

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece on Mexico day of dead and the real tradition as opposed to commercialised festivities of Halloween. how Mexico’s people celebrate life, inevitable death and’s a fantastic way to celebrate mourn the life of a loved one. Also how traditions existed prior to arrival of spanish invasion

  2. Very interesting to learn the how this day has been celebrated, both past and present. Thank you for sharing such an informative, cultural piece!

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