Dancing with souls. Dias de los Muertos in Mexico
November 1st and 2nd is a special holiday in Mexico. The Mexican Day of the Dead, or Dias de los Muertos, is one of the most important celebrations that take place in this country. Its colourful, unusual form attracts many tourists nowadays. But what is this holiday based on? What is its meaning and what is an ordinary tourist attraction? Check it out!
In 2018, I had the opportunity to go to Mexico City to take a close look at Dias de los Muertos. What I saw was, in fact, delightful.
In line with Mexican aesthetics it is a very colourful celebration.. Streets, exhibitions, houses, altars and graves are decorated with orange flowers, the so-called of the dead that help souls find their way home, coloured paper cutouts, Papier–mâché figures and various decorations related to death – skulls, skeletons, but also other symbols most often symbolizing rebirth or being a “signpost” for lost souls.
Currently, the holiday attracts millions of visitors and it is safe to say that the tourist season in Mexico City is at its peak at the end of October. You can see the difference at the airport, which is much more crowded during this period than, for example, at summer (excluding typically tourist places).
Also we do not realize, but many attractions are made strictly for tourists. This happened, for example, in the case of the huge parade in honor of the holiday, taking place in the country’s capital, which is not an original Dias de los Muertos tradition, but derives from … the James Bond movie Spectre (2015)
Mexicans, however, do not consider it invasive, it is an opportunity for them to celebrate old customs in a new form, especially since Dias de los Muertos and other traditions are now being replaced by foreign trends, such as Halowween.
It is worth asking, however, what is this indigenous holiday all about?
Let’s feed the Dead in Dias de los Muertos!
During the Dias de los Muertos, the dead return to Earth. The end of October and the beginning of November is a special, liminal (i.e. borderline) time, when two dimensions meet.
A similar perception of this period of the year occurred in many distant cultures. It was like that in pre-Christian Poland (hence the later Dziady, derived from pagan traditions) and in the Celts (hence Halloween). Also in the Aztecs, Dias de los Muertos coincided with the pre-Christian feasts in honor of the dead. Hence, there are many pre-Columbian traditions that are present also nowadays.
The basic custom during the Dias de los Muertos is to decorate home altars with photos of deceased relatives. In addition, on such altars and graves, souls are left with food (the most popular is the so-called Pan de los muertos, i.e. the bread of the dead, sweet baking – very tasty also for the living) and a drink to feed themselves, as well as favorite objects or even stimulants like alcohol or cigarettes.
The altars are also decorated with colourful skulls (made of sugar or clay), skeletons, flowers, cutouts and various figurines. Intense colours are to remind the living that death is really closely related to life and it is not about the end, but about rebirth. On the other hand, souls are still present in our lives and we need to take care of them. Otherwise, they may even visit us and take revenge for the lack of attention and offerings.
Ir’s because in Mexican religiosity, the pre-Columbian customs of exchanging with deities or ancestors remained alive. Thus, Mexicans bring requests to their deceased relatives, but in return they must repay them and help them cross the underworld. Hence the orange flowers, food and drink, as well as all auxiliary procedures in resting in peace.
The Holy Death’s Day
Of course, Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, cannot be missing at the Festival of the Dead. It is a folk saint, not accepted by the church, the cult of which has been gaining popularity since the beginning of the 21st century.
Santa Muerte is the personification of death, it is a woman in the form of a skeleton dressed in dresses (often wedding, accompanied by a veil) or Marian costumes. Holy Death does not fall into the official Catholic canon, but gains many followers due to its effectiveness.
During the Dias de los Muertos, altars of the Thin one (Spanish: La Flaca) are also decorated. You can see flowers, sweets, alcohol and cigarettes on them. However, the altars of the Holy Death often drown in such gifts, as worshipers bring offerings to her to grant her prayers. From what I could learn from Mexicans, Santa Muerte’s effectiveness is very high. That is why it is gaining more and more popularity.
Another very popular representation of death is la Catrina, which, however, is not the same as Santa Muerte. La Catrina is a character invented by Jose Guadalupe Posada – a skeleton in a 19th century female dress, originally a satire of the upper classes in Mexico.
At Dias de los Muertos, dressing up as Catrina or wearing skull makeup is very popular.
The meaning for Mexicans
Familiarity with death is a very important element of Mexican identity. During my stay in Mexico, I had the opportunity to conduct several interviews. Hence I could learn from Mexicans what this holiday means for them. Most emphasized the importance of the holiday for tradition and “Mexicanness”.
I had a very interesting conversation with the owner of the Todo para su Alberca plumbing shop in Mexico City. The shop was a family run business with an extraordinary decoration on Dias de los Muertos. Each element of the exhibition was offered as a gift or as a souvenir. The shop owners made it a tradition for the Days of the Dead.
The owner I spoke to was the son of the store’s founder. It was he who started the tradition with decoration on the Dias de los Muertos. He told me the story of the death of his wife’s mother. His children were very close to his grandmother, but the belief in the afterlife and the “cheerful” aspect of death helped them a lot in their mourning process. Thus, Mexican familiarity with death serves to tame it and is an element supporting the mourning of loved ones.