People are still shocked at the way that death is celebrated here in Mexico. The Day of the Dead is actually a week of joyous celebration because the dead get to come back and celebrate with their families and loved ones. The Nobel prize-winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz explains in his book Labyrinth of Solitude.
“The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.”
The Day of the Dead that is celebrated throughout Mexico for centuries before Christianity came in. Prior to the Spanish indigenous peoples of central and Latin America celebrated and paid their respects to those who had passed away. Anthropology texts state that the Aztecs had a month long festival that was dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl who was the ruler of the afterlife.
Christianity in its efforts to ensure the “pagans” were “saved” moved the dates to October so that the celebration coincided with the Catholic holidays of All Souls Day and All Saints Day. This early cultural appropriation is ongoing and can be considered offensive when Westerners take over the symbols and cultural identity of this deeply held Latino sacred belief system.
Dia De Los Muertos is not celebrated on Halloween and it is not tied to this now secular day of trick or treating. Here in Mexico there are as many types of celebration and activities as there are regions and cities. November 1st is dedicated to Dia De Los Inocentes which is the day to honour and pay tribute to the innocents, according to legend the gates of heaven are opened on October 31st at midnight and the spirits of all the angelitos (children) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. November 2nd is Dia De Los Muertos the day for honouring and celebrating the lost adult lives.
Cemeteries are cleaned up and altars are built on gravesites or at home. Mexicans make ofrendas (offerings) of favourite foods, toys anything that might help the guide the souls to their loved ones waiting at the altars. Sugar skulls, pan de muertos, pictures, toys and drinks like horchatas, water, and pop are set out for the little ones on November 1st. On November 2nd the altars sometimes gain a little tequila or mescal and cigarettes are for the adults. Wild marigolds and cockscombs adorn the altars along with candied sugar skulls, little skeletons and lots of candles.
This is not an inexpensive holiday for Mexican families, many still live in deep poverty and in rural areas wages are hard to come by. Some will spend several months’ income to honour their dead as they believe that contented spirits will give good luck, wisdom and protection to the living.
On November 2nd in the afternoon is when whole families move to the cemetery. The tombs are cleaned and decorated, the village band or musicians entertain and folks reminisce and tell stories of the loved ones who have passed. This tradition is important for keeping the villages close; the family and the community are vitally important to Mexicans and as such is a cultural celebration rather than a religious one.
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