Day of the Dead is a celebration that extends throughout Mexico and other Latin American countries. For Mexicans, it is a very important date in which visits are made to cemeteries, offerings and altars are created.
During these days, it is not uncommon in Mexico to see how the streets, public buildings, and even houses change their decorations; a range of bright colors takes over the most prominent spaces in these places. Day of the Dead has arrived, and with it, a cascade of paper banners, colorful sugar skulls, and other materials, cardboard toys, cempasúchil flowers that blaze with their orange color and stand out even more in their shades when accompanied by candles that burn relentlessly on altars and offerings.
For Mexicans, this day does not go unnoticed. There is much to do, much to clean, decorate, cook, and, of course, much to eat and drink. The truth is, if we look for the origins of this complex celebration related to death and the deceased, we will find ourselves delving into the history of indigenous peoples and the inevitable transformation of their customs with the arrival of the Spanish and the profound influence of the Catholic religion.
Currently, the celebration is promoted by the Secretaries of Culture and Tourism, both inside and outside the country. It’s not without reason; the different expressions of this celebration in Mexico are captivating and interesting, containing a richness that speaks of the religious and cultural syncretism that occurred during the Colonial era, and it has become a tradition that is part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
This promotes a positive image that showcases the brighter side of such a complex and diverse society as Mexico’s. On the other hand, it also allows us to observe the shadows of a tradition that is used almost like a perfect representation of Mexico, its cultural richness, and its mysticism, which resonates so much outside the country.
For the indigenous peoples of Mexico, death had a different meaning than it does for a modern Mexican. Death was seen as part of an endless cycle between life and death. The concepts of punishment, atonement for sins, and heavenly and hellish realms came with the Catholic religion, which was introduced to the surviving indigenous population after the Conquest.
The commemoration of the Day of the Faithful Departed was established by the Catholic Church around 1049 and is attributed to Saint Odilo, Abbot of Cluny. It is said that through a revelation, this monk established November 2nd for the remembrance of the deceased, as well as for the souls in purgatory. Later, in the 13th century, this date was officially accepted in the Catholic Church’s calendar for visiting cemeteries.
When the so-called spiritual conquest was completed in Mexico in the early 19th century, many of the customs associated with the Day of the Dead were already in place: offerings of flowers and food at cemeteries, the sale and consumption of bread, music, candles, as well as the famous literary “calaveritas” and the iconic artistic representations of skulls and catrinas in various settings like parties and dances, which remain prevalent to this day.
In some parts of Mexico, Day of the Dead celebrations include contests for the well-known “calaveritas literarias,” which are satirical and humorous verse compositions written as epitaphs. These were first published in 1879 in the newspaper “El Socialista” in Guadalajara. While they are common today and even promoted in schools and on the radio, in the 19th century, they had serious detractors due to their supposedly “unrefined” nature. An example of a “calaverita” is the following one by José Guadalupe Posada, called “Revumbio de calaveras”:
In the book “Día de Muertos” by the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, you can find a fascinating investigation regarding this day in 19th-century Mexico City society. It explains that November 2nd became a day for wearing new clothes and strolling in the Zócalo and the Alameda. It was a day to go to the theater to see “El Tenorio.” However, it also highlights the profound distinctions that existed (and still exist) between the upper and lower classes. For example, cemetery visits were reserved for the privileged classes in the morning and the rest in the afternoon. The offerings seen at the tombs of wealthy families were made of velvet, while those of lower classes were adorned with cempazuchitl flowers.
It’s not uncommon for a celebration of the Catholic Church to coincide with a celebration of indigenous peoples, perhaps a living example of religious syncretism. In this case, the Day of the Dead coincides with ceremonies related to agriculture cycles and fertility celebrations that indigenous people held at the end of October and the beginning of November.
SKULLS, AN ICON OF THE DAY OF THE DEAD
The famous skulls, which are a representative symbol of this date, find their origins, or at least, as different authors suggest, in the “tzompantli,” a wall of skulls that the Toltecs, Aztecs, and Mayans elaborated and displayed in special places in their cities, such as in front of the temples of the gods of agriculture, the sun, and the ballgame courts.
The “tzompantli,” which means “row or row of skulls” in Nahuatl, were altars where the skulls of war prisoners and slaves who were sacrificed to honor their gods were displayed.
The construction and use of these altars are described by Alfonso Caso, a Mexican archaeologist: “The most common sacrifice consisted of removing the victim’s heart and immediately offering it to the god. Four priests held the sacrifice, placed on a stone (called ‘Techcatl’) by its extremities, and a fifth priest performed the operation with a flint knife, striking the chest to extract the heart, which was then offered to the gods. The blood was given to the idols; the divine flesh was eaten, and the heart was placed in a container called ‘cuauxicalli.'”
The representations of gods with their fleshless skulls are also widespread among the most important cultures in Mexico. Coatlicue, Mictlantecuhtli, Mictecacihuatl, and the Day of Miquiztli for the Aztecs. Ah Puch and Kisín for the Maya. Offerings of carved skulls were also common in the southern regions of Mesoamerica and the Gulf of Mexico coast.
The cempasúchil or marigold (Tagetes erecta) is undoubtedly one of the most representative elements of the Day of the Dead. Its name in Nahuatl means “flower with twenty petals.” It blooms after the rainy season, just in time for the Day of the Dead celebrations. Its color and attractiveness are evident in the altars and offerings made during these dates.
It’s not the only flower that plays a role in the Day of the Dead celebration; velvet flower, gladioli, and baby’s breath are also commonly used for decorations and altars. Nowadays, the cempasúchil flower is highly valued and intrinsically linked to the Day of the Dead. However, this was not always the case. In the 19th century, it was considered a flower of the lower classes, meaning a “lower-class” flower. Its intense color and scent, now appreciated, were enough to criticize its use in altars and offerings in cemeteries. Today, on the contrary, it would be unthinkable not to see it featured in the Day of the Dead or in specific celebrations like those in Tzintzuntzan or Janitzio in Michoacán, where it practically covers the entire cemetery.
There are several legends associated with this flower, attributed to the indigenous cultures of Mexico, which explain its significance and the fascination it generates with its distinctive color and aroma. For example, it is said that the Aztecs used it in various religious celebrations, and it is now intrinsically linked to the Day of the Dead. It is highly valued in Oaxaca, Guerrero, and San Andrés Mixquic, one of the most representative places for this celebration.
NOT ONE, NOT TWO, BUT MANY MEXICOS
In the different states of Mexico, the celebrations during these dates are very different from each other. Some expressions are unique, while others share some elements. One of the first unique traditions can be found in northern Mexico, in Valle de Allende, Chihuahua. It is called “Los seremos,” a practice that has been taking place for four centuries.
Just as this tradition is unique, there are many others throughout Mexico that are unique and remind us that Mexico is a multicultural country, made up of very different communities. This draws attention to the fact that the Day of the Dead celebration with its stepped altars, paper banners, sugar skulls, candles, flowers, and food, while combining elements present in various celebrations throughout the country, is not a uniform tradition.
Therefore, in medieval Europe and in the history of the Catholic Church, we can find the possible origins of such representative elements of the Day of the Dead in Mexico: sugar skulls, the “pan de muerto” bread, which emerged from the need to represent the relics of saints, which were of vital importance to Catholic parishioners in past centuries. The study of this historian also reveals the influence of popular festivities that were held in 19th-century Mexico City, as mentioned earlier.
In 1895, in the magazine “Revista Azul,” signed by Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, we can read about the November 2nd tradition:
It is interesting to think that this celebration, with immeasurable changes, remains present in the capital of the country. Notably, this year, a large parade with different themes related to the Day of the Dead was organized. One of them, the most controversial, is the James Bond theme. In other words, the movie “Spectre” begins with a spectacular Day of the Dead parade, and the initial long shot filmed in the Zócalo in Mexico City is one of the best scenes in the film. However, today it is used as inspiration for the real-life Day of the Dead parade. How valid is this for a Mexican tradition, or could it be considered part of the process of transformation that all customs undergo over time?
HOW IS THE DAY OF THE DEAD CELEBRATED IN THE UNITED STATES?
In the United States, the celebration of the Day of the Dead has its own version, perhaps the most representative (or commercial) of this day. In some cities, especially those with a strong Mexican presence, there are displays of traditional sweets, toys, masks, and, of course, altars. Catrinas, famous for the artwork of José Guadalupe Posada and later for the exquisite crafts made in various parts of Mexico, are common in these events.
José Guadalupe Posada was an artist born in Aguascalientes who excelled in creating illustrations for books and newspapers. His work is extensive and rich, highlighting customs, folklore, and political criticism. It is said that Diego Rivera, after Posada’s death, gave exposure to his work. Many of his engravings feature playful skulls at parties and gatherings. He is considered a precursor of the Mexican nationalist art movement, which would gain great strength with muralists later on.
The Day of the Dead celebrations were recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This recognition undoubtedly fosters national pride in this Mexican tradition. However, beyond that, the origins of this celebration are murky, with political and economic undertones, as well as the influence of other traditions that undoubtedly seem to merge with Mexican customs, showing that every tradition is alive and continues to evolve over time. Moreover, they are subject to trends, influences from other cultures, and other changes that can alter deeply rooted customs.