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  • Writer's pictureAlan Travers

Day of The Dead Mexico | Tradition & Culture

November 1st in Mexico, marks the beginning of the ancient celebration known as the Day of the Dead (el Día de Los Muertos), on this Mexican holiday you will find families & friends coming together to celebrate and welcome back the souls of their deceased loved ones for a short-lived reunion, celebrating the life, love and death of the dead.

This long-existing Mexican tradition is celebrated, across the entire country of Mexico and also in some small regions of North and South America, the tradition stems from a mix of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion and Spanish culture.

There are very few holidays throughout the year that I find really interesting, so much so that I want to know all about them! But this definitely piqued my interest, I have been living in Mexico for some time now and was lucky enough to experience the tradition first hand, here is everything you need to know!

Day of the Dead History

There is no better place to start than the origin story, and the Day of the Dead definitely has an interesting one. This ancient tradition first started centuries ago, long before the A.D era even began, it is believed by many experts to be more than 3000 years old.

Day of the Dead is known to have strong roots and deep connections with pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, more precisely the Aztec and Nahua people.

These indigenous tribes of ancient Mexico believed everything was connected and that there was a meaning/purpose for everything and anything, they understood that death was an integral part of life that needed to happen, but they did not believe it to be the end.

After passing from this life, the indigenous people believed that their spirit would pass on to the Sun, Mictlan, or Tlalocan, where they would then spend eternity in paradise, depending on how they lived and died would determine which heaven they would be sent too.

For those who have died and were being sent to Mictlan, had a steep road ahead, as for to reach this paradise a spirit had to pass through nine challenging levels, a journey of which could take several years for them to complete and reach the final resting place.

The spirit is first sent to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead, where they will begin the arduous journey.

It was In Nahua rituals where the Day of the Dead first began, as families of the dead believed they could aid their deceased loved ones in arriving at Mictlan by providing food, water and other necessary tools.

It was this Nahua ritual which inspired the contemporary Day of the Dead holiday, in which families & friends create makeshift shrines and leave out ofrendas in their homes, they also do the same at the deceased loved ones grave by also giving food and other offerings to the dead.

Influence of Spanish Culture

In contrast to what many may believe, the Day of the Dead is not Mexico's version of Halloween! Although the two are closely related, they are not the same thing.

The relationship between the two traditions goes back as far as the late 1400 hundreds when the Spanish started to colonize the Americas, over the next two centuries the colonization by the Spanish would prove to be highly influential in changing the future, beliefs and traditions of the different indigenous people of Mexico.

It is also known that the traditions of the Aztec and Nahua people were somewhat influential in European culture and religion as well.

When the colonizers started to learn and understand more about the culture and traditions of the indigenous people, they became influenced and in turn took home some of the things they learned, which they would then incorporate into the beliefs and celebrations of families back home.

The Spanish in ancient Europe had pagan celebrations of the dead that also took place in around the same time as the Day of the Dead, the traditions consisted of bonfires, dancing and feasting. It was these pagan celebrations that the Spanish brought with them to the new world.

It wasn't until the rise of the Catholic Church that the pagan celebrations became known as All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which would be then annually celebrated on November 1st and 2nd.

In medieval Spain after the colonization of the new world, people started to bring wine and pan de ánimas (spirit bread) to the graves of their deceased loved ones on All Souls Day, graves would also be decorated with flowers and candles to help illuminate and guide the spirit back to Earth, sound familiar?

Influence of Pop Culture

Whether the Mexican people like to accept this or not but fact is that this long celebrated tradition, has been massively influenced by us westerners some hundreds of years ago, and on top of that, it has also been most recently influenced by pop culture.

When celebrating the Day of the Dead, you will notice that skeletons (calacas) and skulls (calaveras) are closely associated with this ancient tradition, they appear almost everywhere on November 1st and 2nd.

Many people may not know that these famous skeletons and skulls are only a recent addition to the Day of the Dead, in fact, it wasn't until early in the 19th century that the famous printer and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada first introduced the idea.

He had his own vision of how the Aztec goddess Mictecacíhuatl (god of the underworld) should be visualized, so he created the first lithograph of the Aztec goddess represented as a female skeleton, which is what we now know as La Calavera Catrina, which is easily the most recognizable Day of the Dead icon.

In modern times the Day of the Dead is celebrated with people commonly dressing up and wearing skull masks, eating skull-shaped candies and feasting on pan de muerto.

There have also been numerous movies and shorts created over the last few decades which have helped to spread and increase awareness about the Mexican holiday, the local traditions and festivities are now known all around the globe!

Here is one famous Mexican short that I loved!

Celebrating Life & Death

For two days at the beginning of November, the Day of the Dead is celebrated, during this two day period, the Mexican people believe that the border between the spirit world and ours is open for spirits to come and go.

Families & friends come together and celebrate by welcoming the dead back to earth for a short celebration of life, love and death.

In-home shrines are created and decorated with pictures of the deceased along with flowers, candles and the favourite foods & drinks (oferendas) of the dead.

The in-home shrines are usually created a day or two before the celebration begins, as come the actual Day of the Dead, families & friends visit the graves of the deceased loved ones, where they will then create other similar shrines with pictures, flowers, candles, food & drinks.

It is believed through prayer and the giving of oferendas that the deceased will find their way back home to join in on the celebration of life with their beloved family members during this two-day festival.

Unlike Halloween, this festival is rather intimate and is only celebrated amongst family members and friends.


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