Day of the Dead: A Mexican Tradition

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The attitude towards death evidenced in the quintessentially Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) might be puzzling for some. It isn’t difficult for foreigners to interpret for skeletons, candy skulls and general drunken revelry as disrespect for the dead and grief at human loss. Nothing could be further from the truth. For those accustomed to hush voices, formal clothing, a solemn priest, and absence of children as fitting for the graveside, this festival flies in the face of propriety. 

Bright flowers, loud music, colorful decorations and seasonal sweets are characteristic of any popular cemetery of México on the first two days of Nov. Some academics are critical of the historical roots of Day of the Dead and say that it is more about profit than respect for the dead.

Certainly, in some parts of Mexico City, the holiday has become a full-fledged tourist attraction. Entrance fees to cemeteries have become the norm. There is not just one Day of the Dead, but two: Day of the Little Dead, for Children, on Nov.1st, and Day of the adult Dead, on Nov. 2nd. 

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The core elements of the holiday are family visits to decorate the tombs where their ancestors lay, and offer food, drink and temporary altars. The gist of the fiesta is that the spirits of the dead on these dates are able to come back from beyond to visit, if the living facilitates this communion with petals of the Xempaxochitl (Marigold flower) pointing in the direction from the grave to the house. Altars and tombs also feature candles to light the way, water for the dead to drink and salt for the journey.

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The tradition of celebrating the dead or “los muertos” is basically a pre-Hispanic concept. It is widely known that the Mexica (ancient indigenous Mexicans) celebrated a fiesta called: “Mixailhuitontli” held in honor of dead children, and  “Mixailhuitl” in honor of adult dead. But before the Spanish conquest, these fiestas were not celebrated in early Nov., but in the middle of the year. The Spanish made them coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day, which date to the Middle Ages. But in México All Saints Day  is secondary to the pre-Hispanic festival.

Even in Mixquic, which is just one big party contaminated by commercialism, they put a clay dog on the altar a clear reference to pre-conquest custom of killing a dog and incinerating it with the body of the deceased to help it on its way. In the Hispanic tradition the dead had to cross a river, and the dog was needed to help the soul cross over.

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In Mexico City and other big cities the holidays do not have much to do with the way the Mexica viewed death. The urban spectacle has become interesting not so much for its pre-Hispanic roots, but rather because it is now an important part of Mexico’s identity, with the promotion of Day of the Dead as a resistance to the incursion of U.S. culture, like Halloween. Inevitably Halloween has come to Mexico via the United States, where begging for a “calaverita” has been transformed into “Trick or treat” dressing up children as witches, vampires or mummies.

Today these traditions of Day of the Dead are remembered by Mexicans living here but are celebrated as works of art in places like the Figge Art Museum and the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa’s capital. Due to the current pandemic, many families have resumed the tradition of building a “Día de los Muertos” altar in their home to celebrate their deceased loved ones.

Day of the Dead celebration at the Des Moines Art Center.
Day of the Dead celebration at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, IA.

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