Culture & Traditions

Day of the Dead, a fiesta for the living

La Catrina, Day of the Dead

By Esteban R. González

While there is still life to live, to hell with death!

Learn a bit more about what the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) is:

We Mexicans feel much more alive during the Days of the Dead, every 1st and 2nd of November as years pass.

We make fun of La Catrina (a rich old lady, that reminds us that no matter how much money, you can’t escape death) that now symbolizes Death – creating mischievous rhymes known as calaveras (skulls) and giving our friends and family candy skulls with their names on the forehead.

Day of the Dead figured

We take the children to the plazas and along the streets to ask for their calaverita (candy and toys) and in the cemeteries, we remember and celebrate our departed ones with Mariachis and Tequilas.

La Catrina
La Catrina

The living are always in need, the dead have too much of everything: altars in their honor are put up in homes and cemeteries and decorated with purple and orange cut paper, taper candles and incense, sugar paste candies and flowers such as cempasuchil -marigolds, the flower of the dead-, terciopelo, nubes and carnations.

The deceased are offered food made by the living, like tamales, mole and candied pumpkin, and beverages such as atole (a corn flour drink), pulque (fermented maguey juice) and spirits. Included in the offering, placed beside the deceased’s photograph, are cigarettes, seasonal fruit, a water jug and a wash bowl – so the souls can cleanse themselves -, as well as the traditional bread of the dead, delicious sugar coated loaves of bread decorated with bones and tears made out of the same dough.

Pan de Muerto (Bread of the dead)

On the altars for the dead children -the little deceased- there are also toys made out of wood, cardboard, clay or plastic. Thus, the departed ones who visit us on these days will quench their thirst and satisfy their hunger and their spirit.

When the altar is removed at the end of the celebrations, the food will have lost its smell and taste: the souls that have been summoned will be nourished on the food’s essence.

Day of the Dead altars

Paths of marigold petals are laid out so the dead can find their way back home and votive candles are lit for every soul. During the Days of the Dead, the characteristic smell of marigold and the aroma of incense and copal fill the night’s atmosphere.

What is the Altar de Muertos symbolism?

On the small islands on the Lake of Patzcuaro, such as Janitzio and Pacanda, and its lakeside villages, such as Tzintzuntzan and Santa Fe de la Laguna, in the state of Michoacan, and in Xochimilco and Mixquic, in Mexico City, where the graves are bedecked with flower petals, this tradition is celebrated with impressive solemnity, in an ambiance of mestization where the sacred and the profane are complemented by millenary pre-Hispanic rites.

La Catrina

Life gains meaning with death: after all, we were born to die. And more so on these days, during the well-attended wakes at the cemeteries where, with tequila or with mezcal, we share a toast with our departed ones, accompanying them at their last resting place. Then we remember that in a hundred years we will all be goners… But in the meantime. as the popular Mexican saying goes: “the dead to the well and the living to revel!”

Read more on Wikipedia.

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