In Mexico, each town, each region, has its own traditions, its own uses, and customs. But if there is a tradition that we find in each of them, it is without a doubt, the celebration of the Day of the Dead. It is in time, in which each family prepares to receive the souls of the loved ones who have abandoned this life.
But to speak of the Day of the Dead, is not only to speak of November 2, the date that the Catholic Church has marked as the Day of the Faithful Dead. Speaking of the Day of the Dead in Mexico is talking about mysticism, symbolism, pre-Hispanic roots, altars, offerings, history, the last days of October and the first days of November.
Now that the celebrations for this year have come to a close, it is a good time to talk about everything that you may have seen that represents the origin of the tradition, what we have been gradually forgetting, the symbolism of the altars and the different activities that frame the largest tradition in Mexico. Because, without a doubt, you will want to return next year to witness this amazing time in Mexico, and you will have a better understanding of the holiday and share it with your friends.
The Origin of Day of the Dead
Death has been in all cultures and throughout history, an event that invites reflection, rituals, ceremonies, the search for answers, which causes fear, admiration, and uncertainty. The prehispanic cultures shared the belief that there is an animistic and immortal entity that gives conscience to the human being and that after death he continues his way in the world of the dead, where he still needs tools, utensils, and food.
In the 18 months of the Mexica calendar, you can see that there are at least six celebrations dedicated to the dead. The most important was the festival of the fleshless that was celebrated in the ninth month, close to August, and was presided over by the goddess Michecacíhuatl , mistress of the dead and queen of Mictlán, and by Mictlantecuhtli, lord of the place of the dead and god of the shadows.
But the Mictlán, where all the dead arrived that had perished of natural causes, was not the only destiny of the deceased. In its culture, there was the Tonatiuhichan, where those who died in war or in labor arrived. The Tlalocán, where those who died because of water, lightning, or diseases; Finally, the Tonacacuauhtitlan was the place where the children who had not tasted corn, the symbol of the land, and therefore had not had contact with death; there, they were fed by the tree that provides sustenance and where they stayed until they received the opportunity of a second life, the possibility of reincarnating.
Unlike the Christian religion, in the Mictlán there were no moral connotations of hell or heaven, however, to reach it the dead had to, for four years, go through various tests found in different levels of the underworld, finally arrive at the place of his eternal rest, free himself of his tonalli or soul and be compensated by the presence of Tonatiuh, the god of the Sun, at the end of the journey.
It was not until the arrival of the conquerors, when the spread of Christianity introduced to our culture the terror of death and hell ; However, the evangelizers had to give in to the strong beliefs of the natives, giving rise to a syncretism between Spanish and indigenous customs, which gave rise to what we know today as the Day of the Dead celebration.
Different days, different souls
According to the Catholic Church, the days designated to honor the dead are November 1 and 2, the days of All Saints and Faithful Dead, respectively. However, for those who follow the indigenous customs, the celebration begins the last week of October and ends the first days of November.
Thus, in some regions, the festivities begin on October 25 or 28, and end, depending on local customs, on November 2 or 3. Tells the story and the tradition that has passed from mouth to mouth between generations, that the souls arrive in order at 12 o’clock of each day:
October 28: the day that receives those who died because of an accident and could never reach their destination, or, those who had a sudden and violent death.
October 29: the drowned.
October 30: to lonely and forgotten souls, who have no relatives. that you remember them; the orphans and the criminals.
October 31: the limbos, those who were never born or did have not receive the baptism.
November 1: Children, also referred to as “little angels”.
November 2: the dead adults.
However, this order varies in each region. For example, in Puebla and Veracruz, on October 29 and 30, new deceased are celebrated, no longer than one year; also those who died the month before the celebration do not receive an offering since they do not have time to get permission to return. In some regions of the south of the country, on the 31st, our ancestors are awaited, the dead of the dead, those we did not know.
Another good example is Baja California, where on November 2 all the souls are received, or the Tzeltal group in Chiapas, which is ruled by the Mayan calendar and its celebration goes from October 15 to November 2.
The altars, the offerings, their symbolism
The most representative element of the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico are the altars with their offerings, a representation of our vision about death, full of allegories and meanings.
In the places where the tradition is more rooted, the altars begin to take shape on October 28 and reach their maximum splendor on November 2. It is common for the first day to light a candle and place a white flower; the next day another candle is added and a glass of water is offered. For October 30, a new candle is lit, another glass of water is placed and a white bread is placed; the next day the seasonal fruit is placed (tangerine, guava, orange, apple, tejocote). For the first of November, the sweet food, the chocolate, the pumpkin in tacha, and the flowers are placed. On the main day, the deceased’s favorite food, tequila, mezcal, and beer are placed. The element that is not missing in any of these days is the copal.
Traditionally, altars have levels, and depending on family customs, two, three or seven levels are used. The altars of two levels, the most common nowadays, represent the division of heaven and earth; those of three levels represent the sky, the earth, and the underworld, although they can also be referred to as the elements of the Holy Trinity.
The traditional is the altar of seven levels, which represent the levels that the soul must go through in order to reach the place of their spiritual rest. Each step, is covered with tablecloths, chopped paper, banana leaves, palmillas and tule mats; Each step has a different meaning.
The image of the family devotion saint is placed on the highest one; the second is destined for the souls of purgatory; in the third the salt is placed, symbol of the purification; in the fourth the bread, which is offered as food and as consecration; in the fifth level the favorite fruits and dishes for the deceased; in the sixth the photographs of the deceased to whom the altar is dedicated and finally, in the seventh, in contact with the earth, a cross formed by flowers, seeds or fruits.
Each element placed on the altar has its own meaning and importance. The copal and the incense represent the purification of the soul, and it is its aroma that is able to guide the deceased towards their offering. The arch, made with reed and decorated with flowers, is located above the first level of the altar and symbolizes the door that connects to the world of the dead; it is considered the eighth level that must be followed to reach Mictlán.
The essential elements in building an authentic Day of the Dead altar
The paper cut and its colors represent the purity and the duel, at the moment they are adorned with skulls and other elements of the popular culture; In pre-Hispanic times, amate paper was used and different deities were drawn on it.
Through the candles, fire is present, which is offered to the souls to light their way back to their abode. It is customary to place four candles, representing a cross and the cardinal points, but also in some communities, each candle represents a deceased, so the number of candles will depend on the souls that the family receives.
In our offerings, water can never be forgotten, the source of life, as it is necessary to quench the thirst of the visitor after their long journey. Nor can we forget the salt , an element of purification that serves so that the soul does not become corrupted in its round trip.
The bread of the dead has a double meaning. On the one hand, it represents the cross of Christ; on the other hand, the strips represent the bones and the sesame, the tears of the souls that have not found rest.
The flower of cempoalxóchitl are the flowers that decorate the offerings and the cemeteries; Like the copal, it is believed that its aroma attracts and guides the souls of the dead. The calaveritas of sugar, chocolate, and amaranth, as well as other alfeñiques, allude to death and in a certain way, make fun of it, being custom to write on the forehead the name of the deceased.
It is also customary to place a sculpture of a Xoloizcuintle dog , which will help the souls to cross the Chiconauhuapan river to reach Mictlán; In addition, it also represents the joy of the deceased children.
The visit to the cemetery
In this festivity, it is obligatory to visit the tombs of the deceased to clean them and arrange them with flowers and candles. This visit is another example of the richness and diversity of the tradition since in some places it is customary to place an offering on the tomb and spend the night there with the family gathered.
There is no shortage of prayers as well as the music of the mariachis, the estudiantinas, the trios, and other local music groups. In Janitzio, for example, women and children feel tearful to pray for their dead, after placing an offering on the tombs consisting of foods that were liked by their loved ones, flowers, and numerous candles; They spend the hours in calm, praying and observing the intensity of the light of the candles.
Day of the Dead, a tradition that brings the family together
The celebration of Day of the Dead varies from region to region, from town to town, but all have a common principle: the family gathers to welcome the souls, place the altars and offerings, visit the cemetery and arrange the tombs , attend the religious services, dismiss the visitors and sit down at the table to share the food, that after having been raised the offering, they have lost their aroma and flavor, because the deceased has taken their essence.
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