The Day of the Dead


The day of the dead (Día de los Muertos) was originally an Pre-Columbian tradition in which the deceased childres and adults were commemotated. After the arrival of the Spaniards and Christianity, the tradition was mingled by the Spanish priests with the Christian All Hallows Eve (Día de Todos Santos) on 1 and 2 november, to convert the local inhabitants. But the Maya still remember the dead and the modern festivity is characterized by the traditional Mexican blend of ancient aboriginal and introduced Christian features. Important detail is that the day of the dead is an cheerfull matter.      

The activities consist of families welcoming their dead back into their homes, and visiting the graves of their close kin. At the cemetery, family members engage in sprucing up the gravesite, decorating it with flowers, setting out and enjoying a picnic, and talking with other familymembers who gather there. The celebrants believe that the souls of the dead return and are all around them. Families remember the departed by telling stories about them. The meals prepared for these picnics are sumptuous, usually with meat dishes in spicy sauces, chocolate beverages, cookies, sugary confectionaries in animal or skull shapes, and a special bread called pan de muerto or bread of the dead. Gravesites and family altars are decorated with flowers and adorned with religious amulets and with offerings of food, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. Because of these and warm environment, the abundance of food, drink and good company, this festivity of the dead is cheerfully for the observers, in spite of the open fatalism exhibited by all participants, whose festive interaction with both the living and the dead in an important social ritual is a way of recognizing the cycle of life and death that is human existence.

Families create altars in their homes and decorate it with items that they believe are beautiful and attractive to the souls of the dead. Such items include offerings of flowers and food, but also things that will remind the living of the departed (such as a photograph, a diploma, or some clothing), and the things that the loved while they lived. This is done to entice the dead and assure that their souls actually return to take part in the remembrance. In very traditional settings, most often found in native communities, the path from the street to the altar is strewn with leaves to guide the returning soul to its altar and the family. According to the tradition  children are to be remembered during the first day of the festivity, the socalled Day of the Little Angels (Día de los Angelitos), and adults on the second day. Traditionally, this is accompanied by a feast during the early morning hours of November the 2nd., but modern urban Mexican families usually observe the Day of the Dead with only a special family supper featuring the bread of the dead. In southern Mexico, for example in the city of Puebla, it is good luck to be the one who bites into the plastic toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each rounded bread. Friends and family members give one another gifts of sugar skeletons or other items with a death motif, and the gift is more prized if the skull or skeleton is embossed with one's own name. Another variation found in the state of Oaxaca is for the bread to be molded into the shape of a body or burial wrap, and for a face to be embedded on one end of the loaf. During the days leading up to and following the day of the dead, some bakeries in traditional communities cease producing the breads that they typically sell so they can focus on satisfying the demand for bread of the dead.

The Day of the Dead can range from being a very important cultural event, with defined social and economic responsibilities for participants (exhibiting the socially equalizing behavior that social anthropologists would call redistributive feasting), to being a religious observance featuring actual worship of the dead,  to simply being a uniquely Mexican holiday characterized by special foods and confections. In general, the more urban the setting within Mexico the less religious and cultural importance is retained by observants, while the more rural and Indian the locality the greater the religious and economic import of the holiday.