Make that several days. This past week marked the end of the annual, 3-day-long Mexican celebration of the deceased and ancestors long passed: The Day of the Dead.
Lady of the Dead “The Book of Life”
I remember first learning about this holiday during high-school from one of my Spanish teachers. I was hooked ever since!
Mesoamerican Tradition Meets Catholicism
I say my teachers taught me, but honestly I’ve forgotten all the history associated with Dia de los Muertos (along with OTHER holidays lol). Let me see…I forgot about the difference between Aztecan cultures versus Incan heritage. Biggie number ONE. I’ll make further distinction just to clarify for those who often confuse one for the other as much as I have: the Aztecs were of Mexico, the Incas were of Pre-Columbian Peru and the Maya heritage came from Guatemala. The ancient trifecta of Southern-American empires, if you will. But for this post, I’ll stay on track. The AZTECS though lol.
Ceremonies connected to the dead originally were held in warmer seasons; notably the Aztec summer month called Miccailhuitontli, feast of the ancestors. Since I grew up with the Gregorian calendar, the name of this month confused me at first. Is Miccailhuitontli the name of an event or a specific month? Both apparently. The interesting thing about the Aztec calendar is that according to two eyewitnesses, Diego Duran and Bernardino de Sahagún, the Aztec year consisted of 18 months that each lasted 20 days long.
Still with me?
Since research suggested that Sahagún’s account predated Diego’s, I’ll stick with the former. The first day of each Aztec month held a fiesta of some sort. Just like when turning my clock back an hour tells me Fall has officially started in my hemisphere, a party told an ancient Aztecan a new month has started. The month of Miccailhuitontli, or Feast of the Ancestors, spanned from July 12 to July 31st, according to Sahagún.
The legacy of Miccaihuitontli, now called Dia de los Muertos moved from July to October, specifically Halloween, to coincide with Europe’s All-Saints-Day. The Aztecan side of this tradition was formerly proctored by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, or Lady of the Dead, and commemorated children, dead ancestors and fallen warriors. The Catholic side of this tradition borrowed related rituals and customs such as remembering the dead and the baptized Christians in purgatory. Since Spanish priests saw a correlation between these two traditions, around the 16th century the celebrations were merged so that these Aztecan customs would be looked upon as not pagan, but “Acceptable Christian holiday[s].” Fascinating.
Those Who Celebrate
Storytelling surrounds this holiday, old and new. Some people celebrate out of love. Others? They’re too scared not to. You could argue that the latter are the so-called traditionalists. They preserve the integrity of a longtime practice, including rituals. Mexican folktales caution disrespecting ancestors. Including adults and the elderly too, I imagine? Lore suggests that spirits of deceased relatives visit their living companions on this day—like a family reunion of sorts. But if a visiting spirit gets neglected, or another deceased relative gets more attention and better food offerings even, said spirit will get angry or vengeful. Increasingly, though, the Day of the Dead is more upbeat and far less foreboding. Nowadays, it’s celebration first and sorrows later. This is a time to celebrate life!
Reaper by the Shrine
All Day-of-the-Dead celebrations vary the world over, but the big showdown happens in Mexico! One article I read stated that related festivities are the most secular in Oaxaca city or less sacred; which I found surprising. I figured maybe since Mexico is the birthplace of this tradition, along with its Christian counterpart that it’d be more the opposite. Then again, most public events surrounding a populace, I’ve found tend to be what it is: a crazy jubilee. Maybe, with the exception of say, Mecca?
The sacred side of this event one would find mostly in the home or of households. This is what I know Dia de los Muertoes for. I find something very comforting about family, ofrendas and sugar skulls, for some reason. Maybe it’s because I come from a close-knit family and share my mother’s love for decorations ^///^. In many Mexican homes who celebrate this event, you may see elaborate ofrendas, or altars, when you visit. These altars are dedicated to deceased loved one who’ve died, decorated with TONS of awesome goodies and memorabilia: sugar-skull candies; crucifixes; incense, candles and myrrh to send prayers and guide the ancestor’s spirit to the household; food, drink and consumable favorites that the spirit used to enjoy; pan de muerte (bread of the dead) to symbolize earth and a container of water for the spirit to partake in after a long journey; along with many other things. Other family gatherings happen in a similar fashion in graveyards where the living make their family ofrendas there. Often while picnics are held, families sing, play instruments and tell stories while hanging out by their relative’s grave and even become involved with their local communities and neighbors this way. Another thing I love about this holiday is this exact emphasis on de-stigmatizing death, living in harmony with the idea of mortality and celebrating life.
All this talk about tradition and festivity got me thinking about the idea of the word “Holiday”. I’m no etymologist but after all this researching lately, I assume the word’s a combo of Holy and Day? In the U.S. at least, the word holiday tends to be a blanket term to describe any period of time that doesn’t necessarily have to do with home, but definitely isn’t spent at work or school. In short, holidays are just widely-accepted designated times that revolve around secularized activities more often than not, despite religious undertones. I think that’s interesting. I also think that dichotomy could be the reason why separating church from state is so hard in my country ^^; History is just so dang pervasive. Maybe coexistence with nature is so easy to talk about and strategize around, that similar approaches to other areas of human life are overlooked? Who knows?
WANNA LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS TOPIC?
- Smithsonian Latino Center
- Art is fun
- Day of the Dead (Organization)
- Aztec Mythology
- Crystal Links (AN: This site’s credibility seems kinda ‘meh’ to me ^^; but a lot of other sites kept referring back to this one so *shrugs* proceed with caution?)
- Token Rock
- Aztec Calendar
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