The Day Of The Dead: An Authentic Mexican Tradition

Rocío Rodríguez

Punta Mita y Bucerías

The Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration, of indigenous ancestry, that honors those who have passed away. Its origin goes back to pre-Columbian times, when people used to believe that when someone died, their soul would go to different places, depending on the way the person died. This tradition is linked to the pre-Columbian calendar, used for agricultural purposes, and is linked to the harvest season. Nowadays, the celebration takes place on November 2, right after the Catholic tradition of All Saints Day.

Day of the DeathBelief in an afterlife was a central element in the religious practices of ancient Mesoamericans. When someone died, they would have a celebration (like the ancient Egyptians did) to accompany the soul on its journey to the afterlife. They would bury their dead wrapped up in mat made of thatch and put the food they liked in the tomb, in case the deceased would get hungry. Other personal objects were included because the dead would most likely pass through inhospitable places on their journey. Copal, or incense, would also be burned to aromatize the grave.

Day of the DeathThe days to honor the dead were very important and two full months were dedicated to the preparation of the altars and the offerings to those who have passed away, giving rise to this tradition. The adornment of the altars is normally done with Mexican marigolds, starting on October 31st. From this day on, no one is allowed to touch the food because the guests of honor are the dead. It is only when the dead decide to go back to the underworld can the living take part in the party and eat the food of the altar.

Day of the DeathWhen the Spanish arrived to Mexico in the 16th century, they were horrified by the customs and traditions of the inhabitants of this new country. In an attempt to "reform" the locals, the Spanish combined part of their beliefs with those of the indigenous and even changed the images of the deities to those of Catholic saints. In this fashion, this unique and age-old tradition has become a part of the country, with its corresponding variances from region to region.

Day of the DeathCulturally speaking, Oaxaca is one of the richest in the country and their Day of the Dead celebration is one of the most important and meaningful. In the capital city of the state, an altar is set up and made of straw or cane stalks, forming an arch that symbolizes the duality between heaven and earth. The food in the offering consists normally of the favorite dishes of the dearly departed, which could include (and are not limited to) black mole from Oaxaca, banana leaf wrapped tamales, chocolate, egg bread, regional sweets, tejocotes, sugar skulls, mezcal and beer. The altar is adorned with a white table cloth or tooled paper cut outs and each level of an altar has a certain meaning. The first is for adults and the elderly while the second is for everyone else. The candles illuminate the road that the dead should follow.

Day of the DeathThe cemeteries are also important meeting points during the celebration. Oaxacans decorate the graves with flowers as well as eat and converse with friends. The main graveyard is adorned with more than 2,400 candles.

Taking into consideration all the above, the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca represents a mix of tradition, festivity, devotion, magic and history. During this celebration, attend any of the numerous representations and exhibitions of tapestries, candles, crypts and altars, among some of the many that are offered. In the markets, try some of the delicious seasonal Mexican dishes.

Day of the DeathSwitching regions, in a small town to the southeast of Mexico City is Mixquic, a very important pre-Colombian ceremonial center. The name means "where there is mesquite" and it is one of the most visited sites for this particular celebration, one which is known for not wavering from the tradition, which is held in conjunction with the town fair.

Preparations for the Day of the Dead start from the middle of October. Every home places a lit star to guide their dead back for the feast. Houses and tombs are cleaned so when the dead do arrive, they can better enjoy their visit. Offerings are made in Oaxaca, as in any other part of the country, with the exception that crosses with purple and yellow paper chains (signifying the union between life and death) are made.

Day of the DeathThe party starts on October 30, at midnight, when the church bells ring twelve times to announce the arrival of the souls of children. At midnight, but on November 1, the bells ring again to say farewell to those children. White flowers are replaced by "cempasuchil" (Mexican marigolds). At 7 in the evening, an age-old tradition called "la hora del campanero" (the Bell Ringer's Hour) takes place. Locals ring bells and sing as they walk along the streets, visiting the altars of neighbors, friends and family, receiving tamales or fruit in return.

Day of the DeathOn November 2, the Lighting of the Graveyard takes place. Thousands of candles illuminate the flower-decorated tombs, where the smoke of copal incense circles the faces of the people who have come to be with their dead. The love and respect are the main elements of this celebration, making it unique and extraordinary.

Day of the DeathVisiting the church of San Andres in Mixquic is an adventure without precedent because here you can find the apparition of the tzompantli which is a warning for enemies of the pre-Hispanic times, consisting of skulls on stakes. These were placed next to the atrium, giving a very distinct ambiance in comparison to present day Catholic churches. For all these reasons, Mixquic remains a very magical place of tradition and culture, especially during these festivities.

Day of the DeathThere are many towns worthy of mention for their unique celebrations of the Day of the Dead:Patzcuaro and Janitzio in Michoacan; Tlahuac and Xochimilco in Mexico City; or Cuetzalan in Puebla, only to name a few. The festivities in these places conserve the essence of this tradition on a national level, giving their own touch to this very special event. If you are visiting any one of these cities or towns in the first couple of days of November, it is really worthwhile to take part in the Day of the Dead. It's sure to be a fantastic and unforgettable experience.