Towards the end of October, my grandmother made preparations for this special holiday, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Sometimes, if she had time, she would prepare her own Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) otherwise she would special order it from the bakery; a few of them specialize in making this bread for this specific holiday. She would also send one of her granddaughters to buy colorful sugar skulls in all kinds of sizes as part of the decoration for the altar, and she would special order the best cempasúchil flowers (yellow marigolds) from the open-air market.
The last week of October she would prepare an altar with colorful papel picado (fancy crepe paper garlands) and set up pictures of beloved family members who have passed away. She would place items that the dead enjoyed while they were alive such as a favorite drink, a toy, something that reminded us of their life on this earth.
An altar for the Día de los Muertos must also include something that represents each one of the four elements; a belief that is very common among Mesoamerican indigenous groups. The altar must have water placed in a jicara or in a clay pot thus representing the water element. The placing of fruits or food in the altar, including the famous pan de muerto, represents the earth element. Families make an offering of their best fruits in the altar such as oranges, bananas, corn, squash, and apples. The hanging of papel picado (fancy crepe paper garlands) in the altar represents the air element. Finally, the use of candles represents the fire element.
On November 2nd we would visit the cemetery to dust and decorate the graves of our loved ones. At this time we also said prayers for our departed family members.
The popularity surrounding Día de los Muertos peaks around this season. Year by year the curiosity from other cultures about this special holiday increases more and more. So much so that there are now lots of movies, documentaries, videos, blogs, and all sorts of media covering this famous holiday.
Just Google “day of the dead” and all sorts of articles will explain the history behind this often misunderstood Mexican holiday. But in order to understand the meaning behind this holiday we have to understand how the indigenous peoples perceived death and life after death before the arrival of the Europeans to America.
According to the Aztec calendar, the indigenous people from Mexico used to celebrate the Día de los Muertos not in October and November but towards the end of July and beginning of August, which coincided with the end of harvest. Día de los Muertos was not celebrated as a major holiday but was instead part of a ritual. Rituals honoring the deaths of ancestors were very common among indigenous peoples in Mexico, Central and South America. Our people have been celebrating these rituals for almost 3,000 years!
The Aztecs held a yearly festival that lasted the entire month of August. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead” or Mictecacihuatl. Mictecacihuatl in Aztec mythology was the queen of Chinahmictlan and the guardian of the ninth underworld (Mictlan).
During this Aztec festival, people used to make ofrendas (offerings), which is still practiced today, and pray and honor their dead relatives. Indigenous people deeply believed in honoring their ancestors, as it would provide protection, good luck, and wisdom to their families.
When the Spanish arrived during the 16th century, they brought with them their costumes and traditions, like All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Unable to discourage the indigenous people from practicing their rituals, the Catholic Church allowed them to carry on with their tradition by merging the indigenous tradition with Catholic beliefs and changing the celebration date to coincide with the European observance of All Hallows’ Eve.
Día de los Muertos is a celebration, which lasts a whole week. Some villages in small towns in Mexico hold celebrations that last longer and everyone in the community is involved. Some of the most famous Día de los Muertos festivals and indigenous traditions in Mexico are held in Tláhuac, a town located in southern Mexico City; the small towns of Pátzcuaro and Janitzio in Michoacan; Ocotepec in Morelos; Huaquechula in Puebla; and Xantolo in Tehuetlán, a small town in the state of San Luis Potosí.
In the rest of the country, Mexicans celebrates Día de los Muertos with festive celebrations that include dances, visits to the cemetery, ofrendas, as well as preparing special food for that day. This celebration is all encompassing, extending from the homes to the schools to all levels of local and state government. For instance, in the state of San Luis Potosí, the local government provides funding to celebrate Día de los Muertos as means of promoting Mexican heritage internationally and practicing cultural preservation.
The following pictures capture Día de los Muertos in San Luis Potosí, where I am originally from. I wanted to share how this beautiful city celebrates this special day to honor our beloved ones and also to provide understanding of how indigenous customs still play a major part in this important Mexican holiday.
The different decorations and altars are set up throughout the city’s downtown and government offices in the state of San Luis Potosí.
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