The Day of the Dead reprinted with permission by author Judy King
Foreigners have more trouble understanding Los Dias de Los Muertos than any of Mexico's other fiestas. At first glance, Day of the Dead decorations, colored paper garlands, little skeletons performing daily tasks and sugar skulls inscribed with names remind visitors of Halloween. Other tourists discover that much like Memorial or Remembrance Day back north, families here visit, clean and decorate graves of loved ones for the November 1 and 2 holidays. Many families honor their ancestors and dead with home altars, laden with harvest fruits, traditional bread with crossed bones on dough on top, all to greet the spirits as they return to the home for 24 hours each year.
Blending Ancient Cultures with the Church
This holiday is a perfect example of the complex heritage of the Mexican people. The beliefs of today's Mexican are based on the complicated blended cultures of his ancestors, the Aztec and Maya and Spanish invaders, layered with Catholicism. The origins of the Days of the Dead reach into the ancient history of Europe and Mexico. In the eighth century, the church decreed November 1 as All Saints Day. Setting aside the day to honor the martyrs and saints was an attempt to replace the 2000-year tradition of the Celts and their Druid priests who combined harvest festivals and celebrated the new year on November 1. The Celtic dead were believed to have access to earth on Samhain, October 31st, when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead relaxed. The Celts danced around huge bonfires, wearing animal heads and hides to confuse the spirits and burned crops and animals as offerings to the returning dead. Around the end of the first millennium, the church reinforced its attempt to cover the Celtic celebration by designating November 2 as All Souls' Day to honor the dead. All Souls' Day was celebrated with parades, big bonfires and the people dressed as saints, angels and devils. In the language of the day, All Saints Day and All Souls' Day were known as All-hallowsmas, and October 31 was "All Hallowed's Eve" or Hallow'e'en. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they encountered two-month celebrations honoring death, the fall harvest and the new year. For more than 500 years, the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead) presided over Aztec harvest rituals using fires and incense, costumes of animal skins, images of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers and foods, drink and flowers. While the church attempted to transform the joyous celebration to a suitably tragic image of death and a serious day of prayer focusing attention and reflection on the saints and martyrs, the people of Mexico did not fully adopt the early priests' ideas, and by keeping their familiar ceremonies, All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day evolved into the celebrations that today honor the dead with color, candles and joy.
Aztec and Mayan Beliefs
The Aztec, Mayan and other indigenous traditions have enriched the Mexican's attitude about death. From these ancestors has come the knowledge that souls continue to exist after death, resting placidly in Mictlan, the land of the dead, not for judgment or resurrection; but for the day each year when they could return home to visit their loved ones. Daily life in ancient Mexico was so uncertain and difficult that death was expected at every turn. Death, in fact was revered, believed to be the ultimate experience of life, life's own reward, even welcomed as a better option when people are struggling for survival.
The Mexican still views death as a transition of life, a normal stage in the circle of life on earth, a natural progression, not an ending. Writer Octavio Paz commented about his people's relationship with death saying, "..The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it. It is one of his favorite playthings and his most steadfast love."
The Three Deaths
The Mexican flatters and woos death, he sings to her, dances with her, lifts his glass to her, he laughs at her. Finally, he challenges her, and in the challenging, death loses her power to intimidate him. Once he knows death intimately, death is no longer wrapped in a cloak of mystery or causes him to fear the darkness. Once the fear of death has been defeated, the clutch she has on the hearts and minds of the living is lessened once and for all. Death's morbid side is buried under music and remembrances, while skeletons laugh and dance and sing as Mexico celebrates life in its embrace of death.
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