Translated by Herbert Meck

By Vivana Marlene Govea

In Mexico, each region has its own customs. But if there is one tradition that we find in each of them, it is without a doubt the celebration of the Day of the Dead, a special festival that honours the dead. 

It is celebrated for two days: On the 1st of November the souls of children arrive and on the 2nd of November the souls of adults arrive. The origins of this tradition go back to the time of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica, such as the Aztecs, Mayas, Purepechas, Nahuas and Totonacas. The rituals have been performed by these civilisations for at least the last 3,000 years. Today, this tradition also contains elements of Catholicism and even modern influences. In all cultures, death is an event that invites reflection, and a search for answers, causing fear, awe and uncertainty. Pre-Hispanic cultures shared the belief that there is a living and immortal entity that gives human beings consciousness. And they believed that after death, man continues his journey into the world of the dead, where he still needs utensils, tools and food.

The altar

The altars are set up at the end of October. This is a richly decorated altar for the dead, where the guest from the afterlife finds everything he needs to fortify himself after his long journey. The altars have levels, and depending on family customs, two, three or seven levels are used. 

The most common two-tiered altars used today represent the separation of heaven and earth. The traditional altar is built on seven levels, representing the levels the soul must pass through to reach the place of its spiritual rest. Each level is covered with tablecloths and banana leaves. Each level has a different meaning: 

In the highest place is the image of the saint of the family; the second is for the souls of purgatory; the salt is placed in the third tier, a symbol of purification. On the fourth tier is the bread. On the one hand, this represents the cross of Christ. On the other hand, the stripes on the crust of the bread represent the bones and the sesame represents, the tears of the souls who have not found rest. On the fifth step, the fruits and dishes favoured by the deceased are placed; on the sixth, the photographs of the deceased to whom the altar is dedicated, and finally, on the seventh, in contact with the earth, a cross made of flowers, seeds or fruits.

Each element placed on the altar has its own meaning and importance. There is always water because it is the source of life, as it is necessary to quench the thirst of the visitor after his long journey. Copal (The term also stands for incense in the Aztec language. The Mayans called copal “pom”, which means “brain of heaven”) represents the purification of the soul, and it is its aroma that can lead the deceased to their old age. The arch made of reeds and decorated with flowers is above the first level of the altar and symbolises the door that connects the world of the dead. It is considered the eighth step that must be followed to reach the Mictlan (This is the name for the underworld and the place of death in Aztec mythology).

Through the light of the candles, the fire is present, offered to the souls to light their way back to their place of residence. It is customary to place four candles representing a cross and the cardinal points, but in some communities each candle represents one deceased person each, so the number of candles depends on the souls of the dead of the family.

The cempasúchitl flower, the cloud and the turkey gruel are the flowers that decorate the offerings and cemeteries. The skulls made of sugar, chocolate and amaranth and other sweets allude to death and somehow make fun of it, and it is customary to write the name of the deceased on the forehead. It is also customary to place a sculpture of the dog Xoloizcuintle, which helps the souls to pass the Chiconauhuapan River to reach the Mictlan. In addition, the dog also represents the joy of deceased children.

Day of the Dead celebrations vary from region to region, from city to city, but they all have a common principle: the family gathers to welcome souls, place the altars and offerings, visit the cemetery and arrange the graves. They attend religious offices, say goodbye to visitors and sit down at the table to share food. When we clean up the altar on 3 November, the food has lost its aroma and taste because the dead – we believe – ate it on 1 and 2 November. 

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