(The worship of life, if it is truly profound and complete, is also worship of death. Both are indivisible. A Civilization who denies death, ends up denying life too.)
-Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration known worldwide for its captivating aesthetic: bright colors, candy skulls, people dressed as skeletons, and countless other decorations! And despite being famous for its appearance, hardly anyone knows the history behind this holiday, the meaning of its elements and the best places to experience it firsthand; If you would like to know the answer to these questions and not miss anything the next time you travel to Mexico, join us!
When it all began: the origins of the Day of the Dead
This tradition began before the Spanish conquered Mexico, because some cultures, such as the Aztecs and the Mayans, used to worship all kinds of gods, due to their worldview about the origin of humanity: for them, the world was a Huge monster similar to a crocodile, and on it there was land, from which the gods were born, one of them, called Quetzalcóatl (the feathered serpent), discovered corn, and with it, created humans as we know them.
It is important to clarify that the Aztecs saw life as a cycle, even the life of the universe they inhabited, the world died and was reborn every so often, these cycles of life and death were called 'Suns'.
To maintain this cycle of death and rebirth of the world, and with it, the cycle of humanity, the Aztecs used to worship the gods to keep them happy and thus, let humanity live, this is how the first offerings appeared: being small altars for the gods where food and gifts were offered as symbols of admiration and gratitude; Later, these offerings began to be made also for the dead, since it was said that when you died, your soul should begin the journey to the afterlife, and when you completed it, you could return to the land of the living once a year, and it is During these dates the Aztecs used to make offerings for their loved ones, and thus show them that they continued to remember and value them.
The festival today: Ofrendas, Catrinas, parades and more!
To truly understand this holiday, it is important to know the meaning behind its most important elements, here we go!
Food: Pan de Muerto
The bread of the dead is a sweet bread that you can only enjoy in Mexican bakeries during the months of October and November, it is circular and on it there are small pieces that resemble bones, it is traditionally covered in sugar (sometimes red, symbolizing blood), but you can find it in infinite different versions,
They come in several flavors, fillings and assorted shapes! Highly recommended while drinking hot chocolate!
This dessert is not only delicious, but also has a meaning that alludes to the Aztec culture, since it represents a dead person (and was used to replace the hearts of human sacrifices when the Spaniards prohibited them after conquering Mexico), the circle at the tip is the skull, and the lines that come out of it are the bones, in addition, the circular shape of the bread represents the eternal cycle of life and death: two sides of the same coin.
Decorations: Papel Picado
Like all celebrations, the Day of the Dead has a special aesthetic that we can identify in the decorations of the most common places where it takes place, since its streets are covered in colorful papers that move with the wind, called papel picado, Well, they are leaves that have been cut into different shapes alluding to the festival, check them here:
Despite the fact that confetti is colorful and beautiful, it is much more than an attractive decoration, as it symbolizes the passing of souls with the wind, being liberated on the Day of the Dead. In addition, the white ones are dedicated to children who died as infants, the black ones are for adults, and the purple ones symbolize the grief of losing a loved one.
Catrinas y catrines
To celebrate the Day of the Dead, some people like to dress for the occasion, and the most popular outfits are the Catrinas and the Catrines, elegant dresses or suits that are accompanied with extravagant make-up imitating a dead person; Its origins come from a cartoon made by the artist Guadalupe Posada, who created the character of La Catrina:
The idea of a skeleton with accessories and elegant clothes symbolizes how, in the end, we will all look the same, it does not matter if we are rich, poor, ugly or handsome: we are all going to die, then we should not try to see ourselves as something that we are not just to impress others, because we are all the same and go to the same place.
Today, people dress as Catrinas and Catrines primarily for fun, and in most states there is at least one contest / parade to recognize the best outfits.
Finally, we have, probably, the most important element of this celebration: the offering, this is the way in which we honor our loved ones who are already in the other world.
As its name says, in it we offer food, water and gifts to those who have died, since it is said that it is during this time of year that they are allowed to return to the land of the living, and that they can even taste the food of the offering, that's why real food is used, and special dishes are prepared that we know our loved ones used to love.
Depending on the day, different people are supposed to come: October 31 is the day unbaptized children can come, November 1 is the children's turn, and November 2 adults are welcome, finally On November 3, everyone returns to the afterlife, and the food of the offering must be removed. It is said that if you eat it, it does not taste like anything, because the flavor has already been taken away by the souls of the dead.
The entire offering is made of elements that symbolize something, these are some:
- Cempasúchil flowers: each bouquet symbolizes a loved one, and those that are placed on the ground are a way for souls to follow and not get lost, and of course, their smell is characteristic of this celebration.
- Glasses of water: those who visit us are thirsty after having been in the afterlife, so we put out water to drink.
- Bread: used to purify the soul, and was adopted as a custom thanks to the Spanish and the Catholic Church.
- Fruit and food: each offering is different when it comes to food, as it depends on the preferences of those to whom the offering is dedicated.
- Candles: they illuminate the path of the dead.
- Salt: Prevents souls from being corrupted along the way.
- Frankincense or myrrh: they cleanse the place of evil spirits.
As you now know, each element has a meaning behind it, and is used to remember and honor the dead without having to be sad, a beautiful tradition that you should experience at least once in your life, who knows, you could end up taking it with you then!
How to celebrate the Day of the dead
Thinking of visiting Mexico in October or November? During these months, thanks to the Day of the Dead, it is more magical than ever; Here are some places to go planning your next trip!
The most important parade that you should witness at least once begins in the Zócalo, and follows a route through the most important avenues of Mexico City (Avenida Juárez, Reforma, etc.) and ends in Polanco.
In it, you will have the opportunity to see Catrinas and Catrines, Offerings in motion, giant sculptures, music and dance. It is known worldwide, and it is usually planned for the last Sunday in October, look at some photos to motivate you to experience it:
Another place where you can experience the Day of the Dead like a Mexican is Coyoacán, a beautiful colonial neighborhood where, every year, people gather to celebrate wearing costumes and drinking coffee (commonly from a coffee shop called El jarocho, the most famous coffee in Coyoacán. The shop is always full because of the fame of its flavor), here, you will have the opportunity to try an infinity of desserts, sweet bread and drinks, while you observe incredible costumes and walk in streets that seem to be from another century. There is also a street market where you can buy sweets, fruit, Cempasúchil flowers, papel picado and much more to make your own offering.
If you want to have a mystical experience hand in hand with the supernatural, such as Mexican legends and strange creatures, you have to visit Xochimilco on Día de Muertos, because it is during these dates that it becomes a dark land, where the most mysterious creatures roam.
Here, you can join tours that will guide you through the most remote alleys of Xochimilco, while listening to traditional Mexican legends such as La llorona (a mother who drowned her children and returns for those of other women) and Los nahuales (witches or witches who turn themselves into animals to hunt)
You can also take a ride in small boats called Trajineras, nothing more terrifying than being in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by water, while you drink something and listen to horror stories, don't you think?
In addition, the offerings that you can find here are more similar to those that the Aztecs used to make, as they are more traditional:
In the center of the city, every year and collaborating with other states of Mexico, a giant offering is placed for all those who want to admire it, it is called Altar of altars, because it is huge, and tries to cover as many states as possible, thanks to this, in a single offering we can appreciate all the varieties of the same tradition; not only the Zócalo, which is where the altar of altars is located, is transformed during these dates, but all the surrounding streets are covered with decorations, smaller offerings or people dressed as typical people of the Día de Muertos; here, you can experience more than one city in the same place, and enjoy Mexican multiculturalism at its best.
More than one celebration, towns and schools
For a more rustic experience, visit a magical town
Although we have focused on Mexico City, all states celebrate the Día de Muertos, and depending on where you are, you will find different ways to celebrate these days; If you are interested in having a more traditional experience, perhaps the city is too modern for you, our best recommendation is to visit a magical town, as they are towns with symbolic attributes, cultural manifestations, legends and history that persist to this day. In these places you can experience another world for a couple of days, and during October and November they are especially attractive due to the way they celebrate, since pre-Hispanic traditions still endure; Some states where you can find magical towns are: Michoacán, Guerrero, Chiapas, Veracruz and Guanajuato (if you want to consult the complete list of magical towns in Mexico, click here: https://www.gob.mx/sectur/articulos/pueblos-magicos-206528?idiom=es).
Day of the Dead and Halloween, a modern fusion
As you may already know, throughout the world there are different ways of celebrating October and November, Day of the Dead is one of them, and another of the best known worldwide is Halloween, a tradition already adopted in several countries, and Mexico is not an exception.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead does not prevent Mexicans from celebrating other festivals as well, and Halloween has been not only adopted but integrated as part of the main celebration; If you ever visit Mexico, you will notice that even in the parades full of Catrinas, Catrines and Cempasúchil flowers, children and adolescents eat their bread of the dead in Halloween costumes, from terrifying clowns to American movie characters, the mix has been inevitable , and it has given the new generations the opportunity to live two traditions in one; Even in schools, on the one hand, we have mega offerings, colossal altars made by students placed in the most important universities in Mexico, such as UNAM, and on the other hand, we have costume contests where students dress up as their favorite characters , usually from American series or movies and they act, dance and sing to win.
As wonderful as Día de Muertos is, many other celebrations are, and finding two in the same country is an unforgettable experience that everyone should have the opportunity to experience; We hope you have enjoyed this article, and that you have learned more about Mexican culture, and if you ever want to get into one of our traditions, you will be more than welcome, see you later!