Is it true that Dia de Muertos is a pagan holiday?

The Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos), is a Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration. The event, which combines Mayan ritual, European religion, and Spanish culture, is observed each year from October 31 to November 2. Although Halloween is on October 31, All Souls Day, or the Day of the Dead, occurs on November 2. According to legend, the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31st, allowing children’s souls to rejoin their family for 24 hours. Adult spirits may do the same on November 2.

Origins of Day of the Dead

The origins of the Day of the Dead, which is commemorated in modern Mexico and among people of Mexican descent in the United States and across the globe, may be traced back 3,000 years to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican rites honoring the deceased. The Aztecs and other Nahua people living in what is now central Mexico held a cyclical view of the universe, and saw death as an integral, ever-present part of life.

When a person died, it was thought that they went to Chicunamictlán, the Realm of the Dead. Only after completing nine difficult stages over the course of many years could the person’s soul eventually reach Mictlán, the last resting place. In Nahua rituals honoring the dead, traditionally held in August, family members provided food, water and tools to aid the deceased in this difficult journey. This inspired the contemporary Day of the Dead practice in which people leave food or other offerings on their loved ones’ graves, or set them out on makeshift altars called ofrendas in their homes.

Day of the Dead vs. All Souls Day

Pagan festivals of the dead were also held in the autumn in ancient Europe, and included bonfires, dancing, and eating. Some of these customs survived even after the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, which (unofficially) adopted them into their celebrations of two Catholic holidays, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated on the first two days of November.

In medieval Spain, people would bring bring wine and pan de ánimas (spirit bread) to the graves of their loved ones on All Souls Day; they would also cover graves with flowers and light candles to illuminate the dead souls’ way back to their homes on Earth. Such customs were carried to the New World by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, coupled with a harsher perspective of death impacted by the destruction of the bubonic plague.

How Is the Day of the Dead Celebrated?

El Da de los Muertos is not, contrary to popular belief, a Mexican equivalent of Halloween, however the two celebrations share similar customs, such as costumes and parades. The divide between the spirit world and the actual world is said to disintegrate on the Day of the Dead. The souls of the deceased awaken during this short time and return to the living world to feast, drink, dance, and perform music with their loved ones. Living family members, in turn, treat the departed like honored guests at their festivities, leaving the deceased’s favorite foods and other offerings at gravesites or on ofrendas created in their houses. Ofrendas can be decorated with candles, bright marigolds called cempasuchil and red cock’s combs alongside food like stacks of tortillas and fruit.

The most well-known Day of the Dead emblems are calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). José Guadalupe Posada, a printer and cartoonist, used skeleton images in his work to parody politicians and remark on revolutionary politics in the early twentieth century. His most well-known work, La Calavera Catrina, or Elegant Skull, features a female skeleton adorned with makeup and dressed in fancy clothes. The etching from 1910 was meant to be a comment about Mexicans embracing European clothes over their own history and customs. La Calavera Catrina is one of the most well-known Day of the Dead emblems.

People typically wear skull masks and consume sugar candies made into the form of skulls during modern Day of the Dead celebrations. The pan de ánimas of All Souls Day rituals in Spain is reflected in pan de muerto, the traditional sweet baked good of Day of the Dead celebrations today. Other food and drink associated with the holiday, but consumed year-round as well, include spicy dark chocolate and the corn-based drink called atole. “Feliz Dia de los Muertos,” you might say to someone to wish them a joyful Day of the Dead.

Movies Featuring Day of the Dead

Originally, the Day of the Dead was observed mostly in rural, indigenous parts of Mexico, but it started to extend into cities in the 1980s. UNESCO reflected growing awareness of the holiday in 2008, when it added Mexico’s “Indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead” to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The custom has grown in popularity in recent years as a result of its presence in pop culture and its rising popularity in the United States, where more than 36 million individuals identified as having half or full Mexican ancestry in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Mexico City hosted its first-ever Day of the Dead celebration in 2016, inspired by the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, which included a big Day of the Dead march. Day of the Dead parades were staged in a number of major U.S. cities in 2017, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Fort Lauderdale. That November, Disney and Pixar released the blockbuster animated hit Coco, a $175 million homage to the Mexican tradition in which a young boy is transported to the Land of the Dead and meets up with his long-lost ancestors.

Despite the specific rituals and magnitude of Day of the Dead festivities change with time, the core of the occasion has remained consistent for thousands of years. It’s an occasion for remembering and celebrating those who have passed on from this world, while at the same time portraying death in a more positive light, as a natural part of the human experience.

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