“Our cult of death is a cult of life, just as the love that is a hunger for life is a longing for death”.
One of the most well-known festivities in Mexico is the Day of the Dead, that date in which, according to beliefs, people who have left this earthly plane return to visit their families and are worshiped with offerings and altars that integrate different elements according to the person to whom it is dedicated; here is a little more history about the Day of the Dead.
HISTORY OF THE FESTIVITY
The origin of this celebration dates back to pre-Hispanic times, because death was a fundamental element in those cultures, so that death was not only an absence of life for them, but it was also represented in an altar that was offered to visitors.
One of the most hegemonic pre-Hispanic cultures were the Mexica, who had several dates throughout the year to commemorate their dead. The most relevant were between September and November, right at the end of the harvest; thus, this culture considered that there was something else after death and therefore, they considered that there were four possible destinations, depending on how the earthly life ended:
Tonatiuhichan or “house of the sun”: here came the warriors who died in battles, those who were captured to be sacrificed and pregnant women.
Tlalocan: a paradise inhabited by those who died in the water.
Chichihualcuauhco: here came the dead babies, who were nursed by a mother tree until their reincarnation.
Mictlán: the so-called kingdom of the dead and final destination of people who died for any other reason, being this the place where most of the deceased rested.
However, in order to reach the Mictlán, it was necessary to pass through different levels of the underworld, which Bernardino de Sahagún explains as follows: To cross the Apanoayan River, to cross without clothes in the Tepétl Monanamicyan — a place where two hills collide, to face a snake, to pass the Iztepétl or hill of razors, to cross eight hilltops where snow falls (Cehuecayan), to pass eight roads in Itzehecayan where the wind cuts like a razor, walk over the Apanhuiayo sewage canal where a lizard called Xochitonal lives, to cross the Chiconahuapan with the help of a xoloitzcuintle dog, and finally, to arrive at Itzmitlanapochcalocan, the enclosure where the gods of death dwell.
In addition, taking into account the syncretism reflected in this celebration (as it is done today), because although most of its elements come from pre-Hispanic cultures, the festivity was also adapted to the Christian calendar after the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexican territory.
WHEN IT IS CELEBRATED
The dates on which this festivity is celebrated are mainly due to two factors: the days in which the pre-Hispanic cultures celebrated it and the coincidence that the evangelizers noticed with All Saints’ Day, which was dedicated to remember the saints who died in the name of Christ, which began in Europe in the 13th century, as well as with the Feast of the Faithful Departed, which was celebrated one day after the previous one and it was from the 14th century when the Catholic Church included this festivity to remember the people who died from pandemics such as the Black Plague.
Thus, currently Day of the Dead in Mexico is commemorated on November 1st and 2nd, divided as follows: the first day is All Saints Day and is dedicated to the little dead or children who died at a young age, while the second day is All Souls Day and refers to all the other people who have died.
DIFFERENT FORMS OF CELEBRATION
In each state of the Mexican Republic the Day of the Dead is celebrated in different ways, there are some very peculiar and characteristic ones that are worth visiting, here are some of them:
Mexico City: the capital of the country has different activities to commemorate the Day of the Dead, among them the festival of skulls, night of the dead by bicycle, a monumental offering in Ciudad Universitaria, mega procession of catrinas and the Day of the Dead in Mixquic.
In the State of Mexico, there is a Night of the Dead Festival in Tepotzotlán, as well as a Day of the Dead Cultural Festival in Metepec, the Festival of Souls in Valle de Bravo, the Alfeñique Fair and Cultural Festival in Toluca and the Catrinas Summit in Teotihuacan.
One of the states with the greatest cultural contribution in the country is Guanajuato and this holiday is no exception, since in San Miguel de Allende there is the Calaca Festival, in Leon Catrinas Parade, Festival of the Dead and Alfeñique Fair, as well as Luminarias in the same municipality and the typical monumental ofrenda at the University of Guanajuato.
Michoacán is known for its great festivities on this date, with a Cultural Festival of the Dead in the state capital, Night of the Dead in Pátzcuaro and the Candle Festival in Uruapan.
Puebla is not far behind and offers a Festival of Light and Life in Chignahuapan, Day of the Dead Parade in Atlixco, Catrinas Parade in Tehuacan, Catrinas Festival in Cholula and Day of the Dead Offering in Huaquechula.
San Luis Potosi, in the Huasteca region of this state the Day of the Dead festivity is called Xantolo and is one of the biggest for the inhabitants of the region.
Last but not least is Veracruz, where there is a Mictlan Festival in Xalapa, Xantolo in the Huasteca, La Cantada in Naolinco and the International Chinese Paper Balloon Festival in Zozocolco.
Thus, when someone died, he was buried wrapped in a mat and his relatives made a ritual to guide him on his way, they also placed food that he liked during his life, this with the belief that the deceased could be hungry, so what is now known as altars of the dead were born, which, depending on the place may have different elements, but in general the structure is as follows:
Water as a reflection of purity and to help mitigate the thirst of visitors, as well as strengthen their return.
Copal and incense: it is believed that the smell of both elements cleans the environment; besides chasing away bad spirits.
Flowers: cempasúchil is the traditional flower of this festivity and it is considered a guide for the souls towards the home of those who are waiting for them, due to its striking color, it is usually accompanied by wallflower and cloud, these represent accompaniment to the young souls.
Candles and candles: in some places, each candle represents a deceased person, representing guidance and hope in all worlds.
The arch represents the door that visitors open from the world of the deceased to the world of the living, peculiarly it is decorated with flowers and some fruit.
Cross, this element is typical of the syncretism after the conquest by the Spaniards and can be made with different materials.
Bread, this exclusive and traditional bread of the time is a mixture between Christianity and the indigenous tradition; in addition, the circle on the top of the bread is the representation of a skull and the strips on the sides resemble bones.
Photographs of the deceased: this is the most faithful way to represent the person or persons to whom the offering is dedicated.
Food and drinks, especially those that were to the liking of the people to whom the altar is dedicated, since according to tradition, visitors are fed with what is in the offering.
Salt, according to tradition, salt helps the spirits that visit the altars to deviate on the way from the afterlife.
Sugar skulls as a reminder of the ever present death.
Papel picado in different colors such as orange, purple, blue, red, white and black; traditionally and each one of them represents something different.
In addition to the elements mentioned above, altars for the dead are usually organized in different levels and each one has different meanings:
Two levels: in this altar, heaven and earth are represented, respectively above and below.
Three levels: adding a level to the two-level altar, this incorporates the underworld, but according to the Catholic religion the intermediate level could be purgatory or each level would represent the members of the Holy Trinity.
Seven levels: this is the most traditional in all of Mexico and is related to the indigenous cosmovision and each one of them are the levels that the souls have to pass until they reach the Mictlan or any of the seven destinations to which the deceased could arrive.
Finally, it is important to remember that in 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Day of the Dead as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, due to its significance and importance in Mexican society.
There is no doubt that the Day of the Dead is an emblematic celebration of Mexico’s culture and society; although each region celebrates it differently, it will never go unnoticed.
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