Day of the Dead: origin and celebration in Mexico.

Day of the Dead: origin and celebration in Mexico.

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One of the most important traditions in Mexico and one that gives us identity in the world is the Day of the Dead. Every November 1st and 2nd we remember all our loved ones who are no longer with us physically.

But do you know the origin of this celebration? Find out the answer going through the Mexican underworld and the Catholic purgatory.

The origin of the Day of the Dead

The celebration of the faithful departed in Mexico has its origins in pre-Hispanic times. According to historians, the Mexica had several periods throughout the year to celebrate their dead, the most important of which took place at the end of the harvest, between the months of September and November.

The Aztec society believed that life continued even in the afterlife, that is why they considered the existence of four “destinies” for people, according to the way they died. Archaeologist Eduardo Lopez Moctezuma details them as follows:

  • The Tonatiuhichan or “House of the sun” was the place where warriors killed in battle, those captured for sacrifice and pregnant women went.
  • The Tlalocan, a type of paradise to which all those who died by water arrived.
  • The Chichihualcuauhco, a space destined for dead babies, where they were suckled by a huge nurse tree until they were “born again”.
  • The Mictlan, the kingdom of the dead and the destination of people who died for causes unrelated to water, war or childbirth.
  • It was believed that, to reach this last place, the dead had to go through a long process in which they were helped by a dog.

Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death.

He was the owner and lord of the place of the dead, the Mictlan. He was also considered the god of the underworld and governed such destiny together with his wife Mictlancíhuatl.

When the person was in the presence of the deity, he had to give him the offerings with which he was buried: corn kernels, beans, precious stones and other vegetable products.

In art, Mictlantecuhtli has been represented in various forms, mainly as a skeleton or man with cadaveric features, blood and even with his liver exposed. He is accompanied by diverse attire such as plumes, hats, necklaces, belts and cotton textiles. One of the most popular sculptures of the god of death is found in the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City.

What is Mictlán and how did you get there?

According to the Great Nahuatl Dictionary, Mictlan means hell, others translate it as “place of the dead”. This region is also known as “Our final home”, “The common place where we will go to destroy ourselves, to get lost”, “The place where we all go”, “Where everyone goes”, “The place of the fleshless”, “Place of the damaged”, “House of darkness”, “House of the night”, “Place without chimney, place without houses” and “Place without orifice for smoke”.

Different legends, visual representations and ancient codex define Mictlán as an unknown, dangerous and dark place, which has nine levels. These nine levels are related to putrefaction, the foul, the cold, the wet, the watery, the dark and the night.

The animals related to Mictlán were owls, bats, worms and centipedes, which were at the service of Mictlantecuhtli and his consort Mictecacíhuatl.

Experts point out that Mictlán was located in the north, but also in the center and below the Earth. In the Mexica cosmovision, the Earth was considered as a being that devoured the flesh of the deceased. At the time of death, the Mexica thought that they were settling their debt with the Earth, since when they died, they continued the cycle of the universe.

To reach the Mictlán, the deceased had to wait four years, during which time he was devoured by Tlaltecuhtli, the goddess of the earth. Once this was completed, a journey through the nine levels of the Mexica underworld began, explained in several codex and by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in this way:

  • Cross the Apanoayan River.
  • To pass naked in the Tepétl Monanamicyan, a place where two hills constantly collide.
  • To face a snake guarding a road.
  • Crossing the Iztepétl or hill of razor blades.
  • Cross eight peaks where snow constantly falls, called Cehuecayan.
  • Travel another eight paths in Itzehecayan, a place where the wind cuts like razors.
  • Walk on the Apanhuiayo, a black water channel inhabited by a feared lizard called Xochitonal.
  • Cross another river, the Chiconahuapan, with the help of a xoloitzcuintle dog.
  • And finally, to reach Itzmitlanapochcalocan, the enclosure where the gods of death dwell.

It is this last place where the deceased met with Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the underworld, to give him something special.

The celebration of the Day of the Dead after “La Conquista”

With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Day of the Dead did not disappear completely, like other Mexica religious festivals. The evangelizers discovered that there was a coincidence of dates between the pre-Hispanic celebration of the dead with All Saints’ Day, dedicated to the memory of the saints who died in the name of Christ.

The feast of All Saints began in Europe in the 13th century and during this date the relics of the Catholic martyrs were exhibited to receive worship by the people.

There was also a synchrony with the celebration of the faithful departed, held just one day after All Saints’ Day. It was in the 14th century when the Catholic hierarchy included this feast in its calendar, whose purpose was to remember all those who died from various pandemics, such as the black plague that devastated Europe.

This is how the Day of the Dead was reduced to only two days, November 1 and 2, although in other regions such as Oaxaca and Puebla it is extended to several days, as it is believed that those who died of unnatural causes arrive home days earlier.

Pre-Hispanic customs of cremating the dead or burying them at home were eliminated and corpses began to be deposited in churches (the rich inside and the poor in the atrium). Spanish customs were adopted, such as the consumption of desserts in the shape of bones that derived in the popular pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and sugar skulls.

The custom of placing an altar with candles also began, in this way relatives prayed for the soul of the deceased to reach heaven. Likewise, it became traditional to visit the cemeteries, which were created until the end of the 18th century, as a way to prevent illnesses by building them on the outskirts of the cities.

Day of the Dead in Mexico

  • In Huaquechula, Puebla, a white altar is placed with figures of angels and with different levels, ranging from three to five.
  • In the Huasteca of Veracruz and Hidalgo, an altar is made with a reed arch decorated with cempasúchil flowers, foliage, fruit and bread hung with a rope.
  • The Mayan towns of the Yucatan Peninsula use a table with embroidered tablecloths or banana leaves on which they place the favorite food of the deceased, such as the mucbipollo or giant chicken tamale.
  • In Ocotepec, Morelos, a table is set forming the body of the deceased with their clothes and a sugar skull, decorated candles, flowers and the favorite foods of the loved one.
  • In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Xandu’ is celebrated, which in the Zapotec language means “saint”; altars are placed with arches made of banana or cane stalks with fruits, bread and flowers.
  • In Michoacán, specifically in Janitzio and Tzintzuntzan, arches of cempasúchil flowers are made with sugar candies, fruits, bread and the favorite drinks of the deceased; these are taken to the cemetery and the vigil is held during the night of November 1.
  • Other places where altars are placed on graves and wakes are held are Mixquic and San Lorenzo Tezonco in Mexico City, Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán in Oaxaca, the Mixteca Poblana and the Toluca Valley.

Let’s keep alive the celebration of the Day of the Dead, a tradition that helps us remember all our loved ones with color, celebration, aromas, joy and flavor!

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