During the Day of the Dead ceremonies in Mexico, which take place in late October and early November, the living commemorate and respect their loved departed, but with joy rather than grief.
Marigolds adorn the streets, as music blasts from speakers. Parents and children alike dress up as skeletons and snap photographs to commemorate the yearly joyous celebration. It is thought that during Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, individuals may communicate with their departed loved ones.
No one knows when the first observance took place, but it is rooted in agriculture-related beliefs from Mexico’s pre-Hispanic era, said Andrés Medina, a researcher at the Anthropological Research Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. With the Spanish invasion in 1521, Catholic customs were included into the celebration.
“In that mythology, the corn is buried when it’s planted and leads an underground life for a period to later reappear as a plant,” Medina said. The grain of maize is seen as a seed, similar to the bone, which is regarded as the source of life.
Today, skeletons are central to Day of the Dead celebrations, symbolizing the return of the bones to the living world. The dead, like seeds placed in soil, vanish only to reappear each year, much like the yearly harvest.
Altars are also essential to the observance. Families place photographs of their ancestors on their home altars, which include decorations cut out of paper and candles. They also are adorned with offerings of items once beloved by those now gone. Cigars, a bottle of mezcal, or a meal of mole, tortillas, and chocolates might all be included.
Traditional altars can be adorned in a pattern representative of a Mesoamerican view that the world had levels, Medina said. Yet, not everyone follows — or is aware of — this strategy.
“To the extent that Indigenous languages have been lost, the meaning (of the altar) has been lost as well, so people do it intuitively,” he said. “Where Indigenous languages have been preserved, the tradition lives on.”
Mexicans’ celebration of the Day of the Dead is evolving.
Typically, it is an intimate family tradition observed with home altars and visits to local cemeteries to decorate graves with flowers and sugar skulls. They bring the favorite foods of their dead loved ones and engage musicians to sing their favorite melodies.
“There is now an effect of American Halloween in the celebration,” Medina said. “In the framework of the festival’s original intention, which is to commemorate the deceased, these aspects take on new significance. To rejoice in life.”
In 2016, the government started a popular annual parade in Mexico City that concludes in a main square featuring altars built by artisans from across the country. Catrinas, one of the holiday’s most recognizable figures, appears in the about three-hour-long production. The female skeleton is dressed in elegant clothes inspired by the engravings of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist who drew satirical cartoons at the beginning of the 20th century.
Paola Valencia, 30, went around the capital city’s main plaza on Friday afternoon, gazing at some of the altars and explaining her admiration for the holiday: “I adore this custom because it reminds me that they (the deceased) are still among us.”
Originally from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, she said the residents of her hometown, Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, take a lot of time to build large altars each year. They are a source of pride for the whole neighborhood.
“Sometimes I want to weep. Our altars reveal who we are. We are really traditional people who want to believe that the dead will visit us at least once a year “She said.