Indigenous people from Mexico believe the soul is eternal and that it can travel back and forth from this world and the next. The celebration of the Day of the Dead is based on the belief that the souls of their loved ones will come back and visit them.
The Aztec Holiday.
Rituals celebrating the lives of dead ancestors had been performed by Mesoamerican civilizations for at least 3,000 years.
The Aztec Festival of the Dead was originally a two-month celebration during which the fall harvest was celebrated, and figures of ‘death’ were personified as well as honored. The festival was presided over by Mictecacíhuatl, Goddess of the Dead and the Underworld, also known to the Aztecs as Mictlán. In the pre-Columbian belief system, Mictlán was not dark or macabre, but rather a peaceful realm where souls rested until the days of visiting the living, or los Días de los Muertos, arrived. Over the course of the festivities, participants place offerings for the dead in front of homemade altars, including special foods, traditional flowers, candles, photographs, and other offerings.
Although primarily a Mexican festival, the Day of the Dead is in fact celebrated by Catholic cultures throughout the world. Many countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia mark the day.
It is related to Samhain and Halloween.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Central America in the 15th century they were appalled at the indigenous pagan practices, and in an attempt to convert the locals to Catholicism moved the popular festival to the beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days. All Saints Day is the day after Halloween, which was in turn based on the earlier pagan ritual of Samhain, the Celtic day and feast of the dead. The Spanish combined their custom of Halloween with the similar Mesoamerican festival, creating The Day of the Dead.
Many Mexicans bristle at any hint of the relationship between Halloween and The Day of The Dead but the two celebrations are undeniably linked.
Party at the cemetery
The souls of children are believed to return first on November 1, with adult spirits following on November 2. Plans for the festival are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods that will be offered to the dead. During the period of October 31 and November 2 families usually clean and decorate the graves where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with offerings.
In some places in Mexico families embellished the tombs of their loved ones for a vigil during the night. The vigil lasts until dawn and includes music, food and drinks at the graveyard. This is a real party!
The elements of the altar
One of the most important traditions is the set up of an altar in memory of the deceased where the four elements of nature, water, wind, fire, and earth are represented. Also it is traditional to have photos in the altar of the departed ancestors.
Traveling between this world and the next is hard work. To sustain the spirits as they travel food and drink is placed on the altars, usually favorite dishes of the departed. Each altar also includes Water, Salt and Bread as well as a washbasin for the dead to spruce up when they return.
Day of the Dead Bread
This bread known as pan de muerto is baked and eaten on the Day of the Dead. It’s a sweet, egg-based bread usually containing the herb anise, and made during the weeks leading up to the holiday. The bread can be baked in different shapes such as skulls, bones, flowers, and animals, and is often eaten at the altar.
Mexican cempasúchitl (marigold) is the traditional flower used to honor the dead. It is yellow like the sun and represents life and hope. They are used in the altars and graveyards.
The fragrance of the Marigolds is supposed to lead the spirits home.
Sugar Skulls and La Catrina
Decorated sugar skulls are a particularly unique Day of the Dead tradition. The molded sugar skulls are meant to represent the life and individuality of the departed.
La Catrina (an etching created in the early 19th century by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada) has become an iconic image of the festival. It depicts a female skeleton, usually dressed in elegant clothes.
Far from a sad occasion, Day of the Dead celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed away with family gatherings and joyous memories.
The Aztecs did not believe in mourning their dead as tears would make the spirits’ journey more difficult, rather they celebrated their lives and memory.
Souls fly on the wings of butterflies
While the fall is the season for the Day of the Dead, it’s also when monarch butterflies arrive in Mexico. Legend has it that the butterflies are the souls of the deceased returning to earth. What a beautiful image for such a creepy occurrence.