In Mexico, the month of November starts with one of the most important traditions for its inhabitants. Can you imagine a celebration where both the living and the dead are present? A party where the guests of honor are the deceased that come back to the world of the living to enjoy the colors and aromas of flowers, to savor their favorite foods and drinks and the music that in life delighted their ears and dance in the company of their loved ones.
The tradition of Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, brings us to contemplate the views that Mexicans have towards death. To the foreign eye, it can seem ironic organizing a party for the dead, perhaps because this celebration is a lot more than that.
The journey to Mictlán
Since the cultures of pre-Hispanic towns there has been a blurred line between life and death. Just as the brevity of life was enjoyed, so was the nostalgia for its transience. And although the inevitability of death was recognized, there was also a longing for something beyond the material world.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards, in the Mexica culture water and food were already offered to those who died, for the long journey that they undertook at nightfall towards the underworld. Depending on how they died, a trip was made to different kingdoms where different gods lived. Those who died a natural death had to travel for 4 years to Mictlán, going through obstacles and torments in order to free their soul so that it may finally rest. In their culture, the festival of the dead lasted about 40 days, 20 were dedicated to children and 20 to deceased adults.
An ofrenda in Totolapan, Morelos, Mexico (credit Arturo Medel)
Día de los Muertos today
This holiday is a celebration in honor of death, the death of our beloved. The 1st of November is dedicated especially to children who have died and the 2nd to adults. An altar is erected, known as an ofrenda, where the faces of our departed are once again illuminated with the glow of lit candles. The smell of copal and the aroma of the various favorite foods of the deceased create an atmosphere of longing. The pain of those who stay in the earthly world is covered in confetti, loss is adorned with Cempasúchil (Mexican Marigold) flowers in the remembrance of the beautiful moments experienced in the company of those who are no longer here.
Celebration in the graveyard
If you have the classic idea of the cemetery as a resting place for the dead, the celebration of the Day of the Dead totally breaks with this notion. On these dates, walking the corridors of tombs becomes a moment of reunion. In addition to the tradition of setting up an offering, many families usually go to the cemetery to bring their loved ones flowers, candles, food, pan de muertos (bread of the dead), sugar skulls and mariachi music, to celebrate at a time when life and death are the one and the same.
Various elements have become representative of this festivity, one of them is the Catrina (pictured above), who symbolizes the ultimate state of existence, but not without losing the playfulness and vividness of the colors and accessories.
Another element that became very popular is the so-called "Calaverita" or "Calaverita literaria", which is a sarcastic and humorous type of poem that tells of the arrival of Death, known as La Flaca, to take away mortals.
This Mexican tradition is a song to Death. A praise of the departed one, because in their death a fragment of those that remain behind also dies. This celebration is also a way of symbolizing mourning, not only to evoke the memory of the one who died but also to continue making history with the one who was taken by La Flaca on a journey without return.
As you can see Dia de los Muertos is a lot more than just a celebration of death. It is also a celebration of life. A time for us to reunite and reconnect with those that have passed so that their memories may live on. Join us in celebration of this Dia de los Muertos and don’t forget to put up your ofrendas or your loved ones will be upset.
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