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Day of the Dead, the most Mexican tradition

Mexico is filled with traditions but one of the most important is the festivity dedicated to the dead. It is known that many ethnicities honored death, this celebration has pre-hispanic heritage and is called Day of the Dead.

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A celebration with tradition

There are many records of mexica, mayan, purépecha and totonaca ethnicities’ celebrations that lasted weeks or even months. For instance, mexicas honored the gods in charge of Mictlán (place of the dead), goddess Mictecacíhuatl, known as the Lady of Death’, and Mictlantecuhtli, ‘Lord of the death’s land’.

For mayans, when a person died, his soul went to the underworld Xibalba, and in order to get to this place. They would cross a river with the aid of a xoloitzcuintle dog.

day of the dead

In pre-columbians’ culture, death was as important as life itself. Since this time, death is treated with a lot of respect.

When Spanish came to America, they brought their own way of commemorating the dead: All Saints’ Day. That’s how, along with colonization and evangelization, religious, catholic and pre-hispanic culture’s rituals were fissioned. This led to what we know as Day of the Dead, a tradition that has been among us from generation to generation.

In 2008, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared this celebration as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Mix of cultures

Day of the Dead celebrations take place year by year, on November 1st and 2. The first day is because of All Saints Day, a catholic tradition, in which all those who died and live an eternal life are remembered. No matter if they are saints or not. Also, those who died at an early age are commemorated.

November 2 is the Day of the Faithful Deceased. On this day people pray for all those who haven’t entered paradise.

On both days it is expected that our loved ones’ souls will return to share, once again, what they enjoyed most in life and let them know they are always in our hearts and thoughts.

The altar as a symbol of respect to death

To make their return easier we prepare a set of rituals. We put an altar, full of cempasúchil flowers, which have an aroma that guides the spirits’ way. Also, copal is used to clean and purify the energies of the place.

There are certain elements that are placed on the altar, each with a different meaning. Candles are used as light for the path to reach the altar. Papel picado represents the joy and celebration of being with your passed loved ones again. Photos of the dead work as a memory of how they were on life. Pan de muerto is for souls that pass by the altar. Candy skulls represent the members of the family.

A gastronomic feast is placed on the altar. Usually the favorite meals and beverages of the deceased are cooked and offered to them. Also, a glass full of water is placed as a reflection of the soul’s purity, heaven and regeneration of life and harvests. As a plus, the spirit may quench its thirst after the long journey from the world of the dead.

Don’t forget your pets

There is no way we can forget about our furry members of the family. They also have a special place on our altars.

The altar must be assembled by levels, representing heaven, earth and purgatory. The most traditional altar is 7 levels high and those are the steps the soul must go through to achieve eternal rest.

A graveyard’s visit is an example of this vast tradition. It is common to see people clean and fill the graves with flowers, put on some music (usually mariachis), pray and assemble the altars over them.

The literary tradition behind Day of the Dead

Although it is a 2 day holiday, preparations start long before, to make it as perfect as possible. This tradition gathers families, no matter their age or social status. We all have one common goal: celebrate death, and as good Mexicans, even make fun of it.

A clear example of the above are our calaveritas literarias (a kind of literary text). These consist of verses in which death is personified and jokes around with the living. Usually they make reference to a particular feature of the main character and end with satirical verses where death takes along those lost souls.

Each region, community and families have a different way of celebrating this day, but they all have the same essence. There are also many activities linked to this tradition: parades, huge altars, sawdust rugs, flowers, theatre, legends, and much more that validate why the UNESCO recognized this date as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

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Alejandra Casas

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