Dia de los Muertos, or the day of the dead is celebrated intensely in Mexico, which coincides with the catholic feasts of the All Saints' Day and All Souls' day. In a surrealist country like this in which faith is part of the everyday fabric of life, the Day of the Dead is a working day as many, but no one expects people to work on 1 and 2 November, as every year people celebrate the Día de Muertos.
The origins of the celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico, can be traced to the era of the natives of Mesoamerica, including the Aztecs, Mayans, Purepecha, Nahua and Totonac. The rituals that celebrate the lives of ancestors were made by these civilizations in the last 3,000 years. In pre-Hispanic era it was common practice to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
The festival that became the Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar, near the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the celebration of children and the lives of deceased relatives. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in America in the fifteenth century, they were terrified by the pagan practices of indigenous people, and in an attempt to convert Native Americans to Catholicism moved the festival to date in early November to coincide with Catholic festivities of all Saints Day and all Souls.
Day of All Saints is one day after Halloween, where the latter was also a pagan ritual of Samhain, the Celtic feast day of the dead. The Spanish customs of Halloween combined with the similar Mesoamerican festival, thus creating Day of the Dead.
The Mexicans consider this as the most important festival of the year, so much so that many believe that this festival is the most typical symbol of Mexican culture and traditions. The cult of the dead and the celebration of Death are always part of the Mexican culture since pre-Columbian times. And the Dia de Muertos is the most significant icon of this cult. For centuries this festival has been regarded as a great opportunity for all Mexicans to become aware of death and accept it. All in a positive way, without tears, acknowledging death as a part of life of every person.
In the houses people prepare Las ofrendas, the altars for the offerings to the dead, divided into three levels. On a table covered with beautiful tablecloths are placed photos of the deceased, candles, braziers with burning incense, flowers, cooked food and drinks for the deceased loved ones. The dish most characteristic of these altars seem to be the mole, made with cocoa sauce and various types of chili and spices. Do not forget that the cocoa is originally from these parts, and that its name means food of the gods.
Characteristic are also los pan de muerto, a bread for the dead, which takes many forms but always is shaped like bones or human figures. These sweet breads are also commonly eaten in these days of celebration. Along with these there are calaveras, or small chocolate or sugar skulls decorated in bright colors whose eye sockets have a red or blue psychedelic coating, although these are commonly consumed as traditional sweets. Traditional is also the supply of corn cobs, a symbol of life, made with wheat, beans and other grains.
Imagine how insistently the children ask parents to buy them chocolate skulls. Children dress up and go to the streets to ask for sweets or money to people who pass, or go into the masked shops and restaurants to ask for calaveritas, the typical cakes shaped like a skull. Yet children do not go from house to house, saying trick or treat as in the US.
This custom is mainly the fruit of the nearby Halloween pollution from United States, which also has the Celtic roots like the Mexican holiday that has, however, deteriorated with time. Yet, in recent years, there has been a phenomenon that could threaten the cultural integrity of this celebration, because the American holiday of Halloween is becoming increasingly popular among the younger generation, replacing in many aspects to the Día de Muertos.
The altars are then enriched and decorated with interesting and colorful designs that aim to demystify death, so you see a lot of smiling and dancing skeletons in party dresses and often with sandals to see better the bones of the foot, but also maidens in high heels. The female skeletons abound in lipstick and come with long, graceful hairstyles or hats, while men are often decorated with mustaches and play various instruments.
Sometimes the size of these altars are monumental. Particular attention is given to so-called new altars, prepared for those who died during the year. These are particularly rich and even have his work tools and some personal items. These altars are the most visited by friends, who can visit the hobnobbing family until late at night, chatting, eating and drinking.
Along with pictures of the deceased there is no shortage of family patron saints. As well as in homes these altars are also prepared in the churches and cemeteries and particularly the presence in the churches is difficult to reconcile for what certainly in large part is a pre-Christian and pre-Hispanic ritual.
Meanwhile in the streets there is a great ferment of preparation for what is the most important event, that is the visit to the cemetery. In the evening in front of each house are made large crosses with marigold petals. These seem to be the flower of the dead par excellence, because yellow, takes in the ritual significance of the Nahua culture.
On the morning of November 2 groups of people move with flowers, often in wheelbarrows to the cemetery. And here the thing that strikes you is the atmosphere that prevails. Instead of the sad procession composed of people, reigns a serenity and Christmas joy. The crowd of people crosses with big smiles and greetings on this festive day.
From a distance one can see in front of the cemetery a large number of kiosks that do not sell flowers, that people already have, but the most different edible things. Oh yes, because this is the most interesting aspect of the festival as they go to the cemetery not only to pray, but also to be in the company of their loved ones who are alive, very much alive, with lunch to be consumed by the whole family on the graves in a climate of great celebration.
While the country is gradually depopulated, it is difficult to disentangle this mass of humanity full of all good things. More than the city of the dead, it seems the city of the living, swarming everywhere. And the expanse of graves looks like colorful gardens. Each tomb is covered with lots of flowers and in front of the chapels and over the graves there are the inevitable yellow marigold crosses made by men. Always on the graves there are some food offerings and even bottles of beer and tequila.
The air is sweetly redolent of a strong smell of incense burning on many tombs. First, people make the rounds of all the family graves, or better by visiting all family members hosted there. Given that the day is warm enough come into play ice-creams and drinks. They sell bottled soft drinks, but also very good are fruit waters.
But there's all sorts of delicious Mexican food all made from tortillas with which they prepare, rolling it, like sandwiches filled inside with spicy sausage, cheese, meat, avocados, or as fried ground water and hence are rigid, over which are put beans. Everything, of course is seasoned with plenty of pepper.
Of course for the kids this visit to the cemetery constitutes neither a stressful experience or boring. Far from it. First, because all the children in the country are there they are not forbidden to play and then in the general confusion there roam also sellers of colored cotton candy, the pinwheels and balloons. Too bad that words are not enough to let you see the joyful confusion which reigns everywhere.
During the Día de Muertos, Mexicans go to the various pantheons or cemeteries to visit their dead, remember them and clean their graves. There are those who hires musicians to let them play the favorite songs of their missing loved ones. Beyond these rituals, two famous symbols of Día de Muertos are the Catrinos and Catrinas. Men and women dress elegantly and paint their faces as skeletons, adorning everything with flowers and colorful decorations. This masking is a typical tradition of the night between 1 and 2 November and is seen as a way of picturesque Death ridicule.
Despite being a morbid subject, this festival is celebrated joyously, and instead of feeling afraid of evil spirits, the mood on the day of the dead is much more relaxed, similar to Halloween, with a greater emphasis on the celebration, but honoring the lives of the deceased.
Its hard to comment on this particular form of devotion to the dead in Mexico. Certainly it is a unique experience in the world in its mingling of Christian faith and ancient rites. The fact that even in the churches are prepared the altars of offerings assures us that this is reconcilable with a vision of faith, even though there is no doubt that many manifestations of popular religiosity and even folklore in Latin America seem quite strange.
The deep meaning of the celebration is to demystify death, to live with it with friendship rather than hostility. Certainly strong is this belief in the future life, the fact that the dead live and that they are not completely alienated from us and from our world.