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The Origin of the Day of the Dead Tradition in Mexico

The living receive the dead with candles, flowers, and food on a ludic and festive day

Day of the Dead representation
What is the Day of the Dead in Mexico? | iSTOCK

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico on November 1 and 2. It is a colorful and peculiar celebration that connects the world of the living with the world of the dead.

In Mexico, death is not synonymous with sadness, but rather joy and celebration: it allows the living to reunite with their deceased on a ludic and festive day. Its colorfulness and the striking effect of millions of lighted candles in cemeteries  have attracted the attention of many people worldwide. But what is the Day of the Dead like in Mexico? When did the tradition of the Day of the Dead originate and how is it celebrated? 

What is the Day of the Dead in Mexico?

The tradition of the Day of the Dead in Mexico originated in pre-Columbian times and ever since November 7, 2003, is part of the World Heritage. It is a pagan celebration (although it coincides with the Catholic celebration of the Day of the Dead) and honors the memory of the loved ones who passed away. But in Mexico, death has a festive and cheerful color.

Mortuary rituals characterize this festivity. Their mission is to lead the soul of the deceased to their corresponding space in the other world. Also, it collectively assumes the pain of the world of the living to metabolize it into joy and celebration.

This collective catharsis was formalized in the first years of the colony on November 1 and 2, which remain today as the Day of the Dead in Mexico. According to the tradition, during those days thedead try to visit the living. They need the living to enlighten and clear their way so that they can get to their world.

That is why the particularity of the Day of the Dead is the color and light that emanates from a whole series of rituals through which the living try to illuminate the way of the dead.

The value of offerings on the Day of the Dead

The offering of the Day of the Dead in Mexico is the tradition that confers the festivity color and life. It is a custom that mixes pagan and religious elements. The aim is to share with the dead the gifts of the living, especially food and drinks.

However, the offering goes much further. Through the sharing of food and goods, the living establish a spiritual and mental connection with their deceased ones. At the same time, the offering mixes two cultures in Mexico, the old and the new: the pre-Columbian offered the incense, the food and the orange flower (Mexican marigold) while the European settlers provided the candles, the flowers, and the wax.

There are essential elements required for the offerings, and if one of them lacks, part of the spirituality is lost. These are the most important ones:

1. Water

The soul is believed to travel a long way towards the world of the living, so by the time they get there, they dead are thirsty. Besides, water symbolizes life.

2. Salt

Salt is a symbol of purification. It protects the soul of the deceased from being corrupted when visiting the world of the living.

3. Candles

Since souls walk in the dark, candles provide them with the light that shows them the way. Each candle represents a deceased. Therefore there are as many candles as deceased to be honored.

4. Copal

This aromatic resin is offered to the gods to cleanse the place of evil spirits and facilitate access to the world of the living.

5. Flowers

Their purpose is to make the place colorful and aromatic and thus to enliven the stay to the deceased. Also, people make paths with petals to guide the soul of the dead.

6. Petate

The petate is for the souls to rest, and to place food.

7. Bread

Bread is the central element offered to the deceased and is, therefore, the most intimate point of connection. It is accompanied by other dishes such as mole sauce with chicken or hen.

8. Picture of the deceased

A picture is essential, but it is hidden in a way in which can only be seen through a mirror. It is a way of saying that the soul is there, but we cannot see it.

9. Sugar Skulls

Sugar skulls are one of the most joyful elements of the offering. Sugar and bright colors remind us that death is joy and celebration, not sadness.

10. Liquor

Liquor is a symbol of celebration and the element that makes us remember the good times that we spent with the deceased that we commemorate.

How is the Day of the Dead celebrated

Mexicans carry out different activities to honor the memory of the dead and celebrate the union of the two worlds for a few hours.

On November 1 Mexicans visit their family pantheons and tombs to see their deceased. They carry with them essential elements to build the altar and make the offerings. It is a time to share pain and joy collectively, and they spend long hours talking, remembering and eating to the sound of the mariachi music.

In some places, such as Mexico City, they organize cultural programs throughout the day to enhance the festivity. The multitudinous parades are also very popular;  the Catrina (or Calavera Garbancera), ancient gods, mojigangas, and cabezones are represented in prominent figures or with people that paint their faces.

It is a custom that during this day Mexicans decorate their faces with paintings emulating the Catrina, which has become the symbol of the festivity. The Calavera Garbancera was created by José Guadalupe Posada, from Aguascalientes, and that is why every year the Festival de las Calaveras is held there, which concludes with a great parade.

Meaning of Day of the Dead Altar

The Altar of the Dead is the iconographic representation of the Mexican people's vision of death and the  presentation ritual of the reception of the souls  of those who visit.

The altar is erected in a room or enclosed space and is built in a series of levels that symbolize the phases of existence.

There are two-level altars, representing the sky and the earth, but there are also three-level altars, which also include the concept of purgatory. The most complex ones  are  the seven-level altars, which symbolize the steps that the soul has to go through before reaching the world of the living (or vice versa, i.e., the way to heaven).

They put a photograph of the patron saint of the family on the first level. In the second level, they place candles and lights. It usually precedes purgatory, which is the level in which the dead obtains permission to leave the underworld. The third level offers the salt that purifies the soul and allows its exit in case it gets trapped in the purgatory.

In the fourth level, they put the central element, bread, which is offered as food to souls who roam. In the fifth level, they put the rest of the food. In the sixth level, they place photographs of the people they honor, and  in the last level, they usually place  a cross  with seeds and fruits.

Pixar's Coco: representing a tradition

The Day of the Dead has gone beyond the Mexican border and has become a tourist attraction and an inspiration for several creations in popular culture around the world.

An example would be Pixar's movie Coco, launched in 2017 by the American director Lee Unkrich, which focuses on the Day of the Dead festivity in Mexico. The film was produced by Pixar studios and commercialized by Walt Disney Pictures.

The film is not only a colorful portrait of the festivity that captures its spirit and rituals but is also a beautiful portrait of the Mexican society and culture. It features characters such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Emiliano Zapata, Mario Moreno Cantinflas, Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete.

The film tells the story of a kid who wants to be a musician. On the Day of the Dead, he accidentally finds out that he is the great-great-grandson of his favorite musician, Ernesto de la Cruz. The kid navigates between the world of the living and the world of the dead  and lives a lot of adventures to make his dream come true. The director managed to capture the ludic and festive spirit of death in Mexico.

After a few days, it became the most watched film in the history of Mexico. The film also won many awards including the Oscar for Best Animated Movie and another one for Best Original Song for Remember Me, performed by Gael García Bernal and Natalia Lafourcade.