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The Day of the Dead in Mexico

Updated: May 20

The day of the dead “El Día de los Muertos”, is a traditional Mexican festival that honors the deceased. It is a tradition that celebrates both death (those who have passed away) and life (those who remain and continue to live on earth). With the arrival of the Spanish colonists in the 15th century and their Catholic influence, the Day of the Dead was established as All Saints' Day on the 1st and All Souls Day on the 2nd of November.

This ritual dates back to Pre-Hispanic times, where death did not have a negative aspect associated with it, but was considered as a journey to another world, called Xibalba by the Maya and Mictlan by the Aztecs. While the Mayan name is usually translated as the ‘Underworld’, the Aztec version means ‘Place of the Dead’; both represent a place that is underneath the world of the living, a dark realm where the dead travel to on the first stage of their journey onwards. Aztec legend says that after four years of obstacles to reach the gates of this underworld, the souls of the deceased are welcomed to an eternal rest by the two great deities of death, Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl. Depending on how the person had died, for example, a warrior in battle, the soul could be chosen by the sun god Tonatiuh or the rain god Tláloc to accompany them. This conveyed a great prestige to the family of the deceased and his progeny.

If in occidental cultures death is synonymous with sadness and a definitive break with the world of the living, here in Mexican cultures it is not so. Although death does always include sadness, the life of the deceased is celebrated and death is seen as a gateway to the next journey of the soul. This in turn helps families to mourn the departed in a way that embraces death, rather than fight against it. The Day of the Dead celebration allows families to talk about their loved ones who have departed, to visit their graves and celebrate together, often with music, songs and the favorite meal of a loved one, as if they were there with them. This is why this tradition is now inscribed as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO.

On this occasion, all of Mexico becomes flowery & joyful, to welcome their deceased loved ones. November 1st is dedicated to the deceased children called "angelitos" and November 2nd is dedicated to adults. It is important to understand that “El Día de los Muertos” is not only a celebration in memory of the deceased but of their presence and temporary return to the world of the living. On these days it is considered that the dead return to visit with their families, not in a morbid way or as a ghost, but that their souls are present in the living world during the celebration. Families gather in the cemeteries, cleaning and decorating the graves with flowers and colored paper garlands, candles & offerings and of course, lots of traditional food to share. You can find typical Cochinita Pibil, Mole, Pozole, Tacos, Ceviches, depending on the region and the culture.

Families also prepare an altar in their homes, which they decorate with candles, flowers and photos of their loved ones, including the favorite pleasures of the deceased (often a bottle of tequila or a particular snack) as well as other objects that remind one of the deceased. What is very common are the "calaveras", small skulls made of sugar or chocolate, pan de los muertos (sweet buns), but also toys for children and incense so that the smell of copal helps the soul to find its way. The tradition also says to place the favorite dishes and food of the deceased, so you can smell delicious smells evaporating from the houses. Legend has it that at the end of this joyous celebration the dishes would lose all their taste, one wonders who would have absorbed all the flavors…

At the entrance to the altar, a bed of orange flowers locally called "cempazúchitl" (marigold) adorns the altar to guide the soul of the deceased on the path it must take to find its family. These are two days of festivities rich in color, music and joy. Again, depending on the particular region, town or village, the festival includes costumes, parades and shows and the streets come alive at night.

You might recognize Catrina, who has become a popular symbol of the festival of the dead. This female skeleton figure with an elegant dress and a large flowery hat was created by the cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada, to show that no matter what riches we may acquire in life, we are all equal in the face of death, regardless of social distinction and what people might think of themselves, particularly those who denied their origins.

It is important to remember that Mexico is a kaleidoscope of cultures and traditions. This means that the festival is celebrated differently depending on the region. For example, in Mexico City, the festivities vary in each district. In the city’s main plaza and around, there is a great parade with everyone dressed up like Catrina or similar figures representing death and you can attend a contest for the best costume. In the Xochimilco district there is an exceptional show about the Legend of the "Llorona" and people take boat rides on the typical ‘trajineras’ through the canals, with mariachis playing on boats floating by. In San Andres Mixquic, the streets are covered with marigold petals before leading to the graveyard, which is illuminated only by candlelight, creating an experience of breathtaking emotional beauty.

In the Pueblo Mágico of Chignahuapan (state of Puebla), inhabitants and visitors take part in the grand spectacle of the festival of light and life. The ritual of pre-Hispanic origin begins with a communal walk to the lake of this small village. Candles and torches illuminate the path until you reach the lake shore in front of a giant floating pyramid, the setting for the show accompanied by light shows, dances and traditional songs.

To the northwest of Mexico City lies the state of Michoacan and the lake of Patzcuaro. This region is known nationwide for its Day of the Dead celebration, and people travel from all over to witness it. The lake is surrounded by many villages which celebrate the feast of the dead in a very colorful and festive atmosphere. All the graveyards are highly decorated, with funfairs set up in the streets and family gatherings full of food, music and dance inside the cemetery. In the middle of the lake lies the island of Janitzio, lit up at night by the candles and torches which illuminate the graves and reflect light on the water all around the island.

Here in the peninsula of Yucatan, the Day of the Dead is called ‘Hanal Pixan’, which translates as the ‘Food of the Souls’. Prayers are said and the whole community comes together to clean up the villages and decorate the homes, streets and cemetery. Typical tamales are prepared in honor of the dead and for the living to invite them to the feast. In the small village of Pomuch (state of Campeche) there is a very particular tradition that includes digging up the bones of the dead, which are then cleaned and added to each family’s altar as a way of honoring them and having them present during the festivities.

If you are visiting Tulum or the Riviera Maya during this time, you can visit a traditional festival in the village of Tres Reyes, where all are welcome to participate in the festival which takes place at the bottom of a cenote! Aptly titled ‘El Cenote de la Vida’ (Cenote of Life) this a beautiful ceremony in an incredible setting where the elders of the community say prayers and make offerings as everyone brings a candle and something symbolic with them (flowers, copal, etc) to honor the ancestors.

Another option is Xcaret, although not at all traditional, the park turns into a huge colorful celebration of the Day of the Dead, and is a great option for families.

"El Día de los Muertos" is a unique experience to understand the perception of death among Mexicans.

We also celebrate it in Mexico Kan Tours !

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