The attitude towards death evidenced in the quintessentially Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) might be puzzling for some. It isn’t difficult for foreigners to interpret dancing skeletons, candy skulls and general drunken revelry as disrespect for the dead and grief at human loss. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For those accustomed to hushed voices, formal clothing, a solemn priest and an absence of children as fitting for the graveside, this festival flies in the face of propriety. Bright flowers, loud music, colorful decorations and seasonal sweets are characteristic of a popular cemetery in Mexico City on the first two days of November.
This tradition has been relished in the past as uniquely Mexican. Nobel laureate Octavio Paz said, “The Mexican . is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love.”
Some academics are critical of the historical roots of Día de Muertos and say that it is more about profit than respect for the dead. Certainly, in some parts of Mexico City, the holiday has become a full-fledged tourist attraction. Entrance fees to cemeteries have become the norm.
But the November 1 Noche de Muertos ritual goes on whether tourists come or not. On the remote island of Pacanda on a lake in Michocán, as well as Yunuen, one rarely finds a tourist.
Visitors to the far islands need to bring their own provisions, as no tacos are sold, much less tourist trinkets. Moreover, the vigil also takes place at an unexpected time-not the witching hour of midnight. At the cementary on Pacanda, visitors begin to trickle in between 1 and 2 a.m. with bundles of food, stacks of long white candles, and materials to construct elaborate altars.
In contrast to urban graveyards, no one laughs or drinks. While the graves are decorated, the atmosphere is industrious, and then settles into a reverie, as candles flicker and locals settle into their blankets for a long, cold night. It is not recognizably mournful, nor intensely meditative-more a sort of limbo enhanced by the aroma of copal incense, mixed with the smell of hot candle wax, fading damp flowers and weeds from the lake. It seems perfect for spirits of the departed to return to sit in a fond and melancholy communion with the living.
Preparing the Way
There is not just one Day of the Dead, but two – Day of the Little Dead, for children, on November 1, and Day of the Adult Dead, on November 2.
The core elements of the holiday are family visits to decorate the tombs where their ancestors lay, and offer food, drink and temporary altars. The gist of the fiesta is that the spirits of the dead on these dates are able to come back from the beyond to visit, if the living facilitate this communion with petals of the cempazúchitl (an orange marigold flower) pointing in the direction from the grave to the house. Altars and tombs also feature candles to light the way, water for the dead to drink and salt for the journey.
The poor walk between tombs, asking for the right to pray for the deceased in exchange for food, a tradition shared with Spain and other Latin American countries. Today, mariachis in the Dolores Cemetery in Mexico City will sing a song for the difunto for a fee.
Children throughout Mexico have long used Day of the Dead to ask passers by for their “calavera” – any sweet or pocket change. And sweets fashioned for All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days are also featured in Catholic Europe.
However, Dr. Yolotl González, researcher with the National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH), says that independent of colonial and Christian influence, the tradition of celebrating “Los Muertos” is basically a pre-Hispanic concept.
It is widely known that the Mexica, celebrated a fiesta called “Miccailhuitontli” held in honor of dead children, and “Miccailhuitl” in honor of the adult dead. But before the Spanish conquest, these fiestas were not celebrated in early November, but in the middle of the year.
The Spanish made them coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day, which date to the Middle Ages, says Dr. González. But here in Mexico Todos los Santos is secondary to the pre-Hispanic festival.
“Even in Mixquic, which is just one big party contaminated by commercialism, they put a clay dog on the altar-a clear reference to pre-conquest custom of killing a dog and incinerating it with the body of the deceased to help it on its way,” said González.
In pre-Hispanic tradition the dead had to cross a river, and the dog was needed to help the soul cross over, she explains.
The humorous aspect was absent from the celebrations of the Mexica, said González, just as it is from festivities in many indigenous communities today.
“When I was little, in celebrations leading up to Muertos, there were calaveras, little heads or skulls made of chick peas . and those sugar skulls were continually made. The Toluca sweet fair was a classic; you had coffins of sugar, toys related to death, dolls. But I don’t think this was really humorous. I think it is that death was seen as natural, so much so that its image could be a toy for little kids.”
In Mexico City the holiday does not have much to do with the way the Mexica viewed death. González says the urban spectacle has become interesting not so much for its pre-Hispanic roots, but rather because it is now an important part of Mexico’s identity, with the promotion of Día de Muertos as a resistance to the incursion of U.S. culture, like Halloween.
“You see altars more and more in schools, offices and supermarkets. We make an altar here at the Department of Ethnology and Social Anthropology in San Angel, and place on it photos of our researcher colleagues who have died.”
Apart from the relatively new practice in Mexico of dressing up children as witches, vampires or mummies, the Catholic tradition for charity, which made its way into Día de Muertos, is what is most likely to chime with Halloween.
Inevitably Halloween has come to Mexico via the United States, where begging has been transformed into “trick or treat.” Indeed, now in urban Mexico, you are more likely to see children touring the local square at night with orange plastic pumpkins and asking for ” mi Hjallo-gueen,” rather than “mi calaverita.”
Susana Ibañez, headmaster of a kindergarten in Coyoacán, Mexico City, has tried in vain to keep the different festivities separate.
“It’s not the children, it’s the parents. We ask them not to dress them up for our Día de Muertos party, but they insist. We do teach the kids about Halloween, but in their English class. Here in the school, the altar is the big theme and all the children participate, bringing sugar skulls, pan de muertos, and helping with the decorations.”
Ibañez said that the element of national pride is increasing in this fiesta. She pointed out that a supermarket was criticized a few years ago for having too much imported Halloween paraphernalia, and in response set up a proper altar.
While she does correct her students if they refer to the festivity as Halloween, she does not see Halloween as a threat to native traditions.
Mexican scholars agree that Day of the Dead leans to the side of remembrance of the dead, rather than grief for them.
Addressing the strains of revelry and macabre humor, ethnologist José del Val says, “Death is about separating the sacred from the profane. The sacred is a serious matter, but Muertos is also a festival. So this is a festival in a sacred space, and this means everything is allowed without censure.”