El Dia De Los Muertos Lives On Through The Centuries

by M-Gillies

El Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead is a time to honor and celebrate deceased loved ones. The celebration occurs on November 2 in connection with All Soul's Day.

It’s an annual tradition. Burial plots are weeded, tombstones scrubbed and decorated, candles are lit – one for each lost soul. The women, they kneel and sit… all night as they pray. The men, they keep watch, talking amongst one another, drinking chocolate, atole and even carbonated soft drinks. In some places, food is placed on the graves – ofrenda is what they’re known as in Mexico: offerings of sweet bread (known as The Bread of the Dead), fruits, tamales and sweets such as calaveritas de azucar, candy calacas and dulce de calabaza.

It isn’t until midnight that the cemetery is filled with the luminescent flicker of candles – the autumn wind threatening to blow them out. Both city folk and villagers gather together – rich or poor, their social standing is not questioned – in death, everyone dances the same way, and in death, death is non-discriminant with whom it dances. In the cemetery, they all gather together spending the following day in the company of their dead, but also socializing with one another – gossiping, drinking and listening to the strolling musicians play the ghosts’ favorite tunes.

This is The Day of the Dead – El Dia de los Muertos and it is the Mexican counterpart of Hallowe’en – a multi-day festival that traces its origins to pre-Columbian times. Equal parts commemoration and carnival, with a paradoxical mix of reverence and revelry, celebrated as both a day of loving remembrance to departed family and friends, and a mocking defiance toward death itself.

For over 3,000 years rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by civilization, tracing its roots as far back as indigenous pagan cultures in Mexico, when pre-Hispanic era civilizations commonly kept skulls as trophies, displayed during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.

In most regions of Mexico, November 1 is dedicated to the honor of children and infants on a day known as Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) while November 2 is recognized for honoring the memory of adults on what has become culturally established as Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

From October 31 to November 2, The Day of the Dead is celebrated by the families of Mexico, who build altars and place offerings, bake skull-shaped foods, light candles and incense, and decorate these shrines to the departed with yellow marigolds known as cempazuchitl. They attend cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed, whom they believe arise during this time to be with the living. To encourage visits by the souls, so they may hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them, from anecdotes to heartfelt stories, it has been a custom practice to leave offerings for the deceased, whether it be at the grave sites or on personal shrines.

This is ancestral worship and for the span of history, the Day of the Dead has been documented as a veneration for the departed. Life and death, for the ancient Mesoamericans, were not seen as two independent states of being – they did not believe that where one began, the other ended, but rather that through death, new life was created and that a cycle would continue. They saw death as a continuation of life and that life was merely a dream in which only in death would they awaken.

To this theorem, honoring the dead was not a new tradition in Mexico and Central America. Numerous ethnic groups of the region including Aztecs, Mayans and Toltecs had specific times that they commemorated the deceased. It was during these special months of dedication, whether it be the death of a child or that of an adult, that would be specifically associated with how the person died. Their belief was that the deceased would return, and in turn they would require offerings to them, from flowers, food, incense, dances and music, as a way of gaining the favour of the spirits that arose.

However, in the fifteenth century, upon the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, these unaccustomed expatriates did not know what to make of the indigenous natives they encountered, who at the time were partaking in a ritual that seemed to mock death, a ritual which the Spaniards saw as impious. For the Spaniards, death was viewed as the end of life – a phenomenon that should be feared. While the pre-Hispanic believed in the duality of death, the Spaniards saw their rituals as sacrilegious and perceived the indigenous as barbaric and pagan, and soon attempted to convert them to Catholicism as they tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to eradicate the ritual.

To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved the date so it would coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 1 and 2), as opposed to its original date of the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar (which would fall on the beginning of August and was celebrated for the entire month), during which the festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead), who was believed to have died at birth.

As the centuries drew on, the ritual became more celebrated as Day of the Dead, and quickly expanded from Mexico to the United States and Central America, as well as extending to Europe and the Philippines, with Mexican-style Day of the Dead celebrations occurring in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Indonesia.



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