El Dia de Los Muertos which in English means Day of the Dead. It is religious celebration in Mexico and Central America. In this article, I will be referring to the history, how it is celebrated today, where it is celebrated, and the cultural beliefs behind this great holiday.
First let us describe the celebration and what it is and where it is celebrated. It is very similar to North America’s Halloween. There is actually two day’s that it is celebrated. The first day is November 1st which is represented by All Saints Day, which is set aside for remembrance of deceased infants and children. The second day is November 2nd which is represented by All Souls Day, those who have died as adults. It is celebrated in Mexico where it is a national holiday, the Philippines, Mexican-American communities in the United States, and Latin American countries.
Now that we talked about what El Dia de Los Muertos is, let’s know discuss the history of it and how it evolved. Day of the Dead in Mexico represents a mixture of Christian and pre Hispanic, Aztec traditions and beliefs. As a result of this mixture, the celebration comes to life as a unique tradition. The Aztecs believed that the dead would return each year to visit with their living relatives to eat, drink and celebrate because to them death did not exist. It is merely a transition towards true life.
Now that you know the history, lets now discus how it is celebrated. I think the best way to describe it is if I try to paint a picture, so imagine colorful decorations and animated reunions at family burial plots, the preparation of special foods, offerings laid out for the dead on memorial altars and fireworks going off in the distance, ancient incense copal is burned, prayers and chants are being sung for the dead. Now this is just an overview of the actual celebration. In reality, it is common that many different areas celebrate this holiday differently. The two main sites that I will focus on are Michoacan and Mexico City which are described best at dayofthedead.com
“The altar includes four main elements of nature earth, wind, water, and fire.
Earth is represented by crop: The Mexicans believe the souls are fed by the aroma of food. Wind is represented by a moving object: Tissue paper is commonly used to represent wind. Water is placed in a container for the soul to quench its thirst after the long journey to the altar. Fire is prepresented by a wax candle: each lit candle represents a soul, and an extra one is placed for the forgotten soul.”
“Windows are decorated with skeletons and verses dedicated to the deceased. People select the bread they want to offer their ancestors, a food that is later enjoyed by the family. The people remember those who have crossed the river that separates life from death. This two fold experience enlightens the beginning and the end of a cycle.”
Let’s now discuss why this holiday is important and why it is celebrated. The people that celebrate it put a stress on honoring the lives of the deceased, and celebrating the continuation of life. The belief is not that death is the end, but rather a beginning of a new life.
In order to understand why they celebrate the day of the dead the way they do we have to understand why and in the book Religions of Mesoamerica by David Carrasco, he really demonstrates the belief of the Mesoamericans afterlife.
“In each household, which is the center of the cult of the dead, it is believed that the souls of the dead have taken a journey to the world beyond. The souls of good people travel a straight and narrow path to another world, while the souls of bad people travel a wide and labyrinthine way. All souls arrive at a deep and broad river that can only be crossed with the help of a dog, which lifts the souls on his shoulders and carries them over to the other side…while bad souls would be refused transportation…”
It is also good to mention why they decorate their altars and David Carrasco says that the altars or what would be called “ceremonial centers” embodies the vision for fertility and the revival of relations with the dead. These “ceremonial centers” relate to “sacred mountain of sustenance” of the Aztec pyramids which is also symbols to rain, fertility, and the supernatural. All in all, the altars represent the “body of the life giving earth.”
In conclusion, El Dia de Los Muertos is a very important holiday no matter who is celebrating it. It has a rich history of the Mesoamerican people and it’s a reminder of who they are and where they came from. It is one of the few remaining ideas that the indigenous people can still hold on to as their own without being completely rip away from them.