on Recent Mexican Narrative
First Mexican Posada 2003
LOS DIAS DE LOS MUERTOS
(The Days of the
|Foreigners have more trouble understanding Los Dias de Los Muertos
than any of Mexico's other fiestas. At first glance, Day of the Dead
decorations, colored paper garlands, little skeletons performing daily
tasks and sugar skulls inscribed with names remind visitors of Halloween.
Other tourists discover that much like Memorial or Remembrance Day back
north, families here visit, clean and decorate graves of loved ones for
the November 1 and 2 holidays. Many families honor their ancestors and
dead with home altars, laden with harvest fruits, traditional bread with
crossed bones on dough on top, all to greet the spirits as they return to
the home for 24 hours each year.
BLENDING ANCIENT CULTURES WITH THE
The beliefs of today's Mexican are based on the complicated blended cultures
of his ancestors, the Aztec and Maya and Spanish invaders, layered with
Catholicism. The origins of the Days of the Dead reach into the ancient history
of Europe and Mexico. In the eighth century, the church decreed November 1 as
All Saints Day. Setting aside the day to honor the martyrs and saints was an
attempt to replace the 2000-year tradition of the Celts and their Druid priests
who combined harvest festivals and celebrated the new year on November
The Celtic dead were believed to have access to earth on Samhain,
October 31st, when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead
relaxed. The Celts danced around huge bonfires, wearing animal heads and hides
to confuse the spirits and burned crops and animals as offerings to the
Around the end of the first millennium, the church
reinforced its attempt to cover the Celtic celebration by designating November 2
as All Souls' Day to honor the dead. All Souls' Day was celebrated with parades,
big bonfires and the people dressed as saints, angels and devils.
language of the day, All Saints Day and All Souls' Day were known as
All-hallowsmas, and October 31 was "All Hallowed's Eve" or
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they encountered
two-month celebrations honoring death, the fall harvest and the new year. For
more than 500 years, the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead) presided over
Aztec harvest rituals using fires and incense, costumes of animal skins, images
of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers and foods,
drink and flowers.
While the church attempted to transform the joyous
celebration to a suitably tragic image of death and a serious day of prayer
focusing attention and reflection on the saints and martyrs. The people of
Mexico did not fully adopt the early priests' ideas, and by keeping their
familiar ceremonies, All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day evolved into the
celebrations that today honor the dead with color, candles, joy
AND MAYAN BELIEFS
The Aztec, Mayan and other indigenous traditions have
enriched the Mexican's attitude about death. From these ancestors has come the
knowledge that souls continue to exist after death, resting placidly in Mictlan,
the land of the dead, not for judgment or resurrection; but for the day each
year when they could return home to visit their loved ones.
Daily life in
ancient Mexico was so uncertain and difficult that death was expected at every
turn. Death, in fact was revered, believed to be the ultimate experience of
life, life's own reward, even welcomed as a better option when people are
struggling for survival.
The Mexican still views death as a transition of
life, a normal stage in the circle of life on earth, a natural progression, not
Writer Octavio Paz commented about his people's relationship
with death saying, The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses
it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it. It is one of his favorite playthings and
his most steadfast love."
THE THREE DEATHS
There is a Mexican legend that talks about the three deaths. The first death
is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat of their
own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space we
occupy slowly loses its meaning.
The second death comes when the body is
lowered into the ground, returned to mother earth, out of sight.
third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to
TRADITIONS and CUSTOMS
|The act of preparing an altar by placing photographs, flowers,
candles, favorite foods and drink of the loved one provides a special time
to remember, and totransform grief into acceptance. The living invite the
spirits of the family to return home for a few hours of laughter, tears
important aspect of the holiday is the closure that it
provides for families who have lost a loved one during the previous year.
Without embalming, burial must take place within 24 hours of death. During
this short period, the body is laid out in the coffin at home, surrounded
by candles, flowers, family and friends. While the and friends gather, and
sit in vigil during the night, then return for another week to recite the
rosary, there is often little time for acceptance or reality. Preparing
the return of the spirit each fall lets the family remember and honor
their dead, and gives them a chance to heal.
Some families the altar of offerings at the family grave site, lighting a
candle for each dead one, remembering the names, and placing flowers or coronas
(wreaths) at the Many stay to visit, eat, drink and pray while they keep a vigil
during the night. All night, throughout the cemetery there is a grand family
reunion of huge extended families, alive and dead, as one by one, through
stories, memories and dreams, the dead return. On this night, those who wait
realize the importance of living to beremembered, working to be well respected
and loving to be well missed.
Once the night has passed, and spirits have
returned to their world, the ones remaining known that for another year they
have triumphed in the struggle of life and that the only way to celebrate death
is to live with courage. They have faced death and have won, saying, "Look here,
you old bald skull - you fleshless one - you didn't get me - I have survived to
live again today."
PREPARING THE ALTAR
|Even families withvery limited budgets no expense when preparing the
altar to honor their family. They want their spirits to enjoy the
offerings and to return each year to continue this special spiritual
The altar is prepared in a place of honor in the using empty boxes
on a table to form a pyramid of three or more levels, then a white
tablecloth covers it all.
Four candles are placed on the top level
to represent thecardinal directions. A candle is lit for each dead family
member, and one extra so that no one is left out. The candles, which
represent hope and faith, burn during the so that there is no
Copal is the resinous sap of a Mexican tree, burned as incense the time of
the Aztecs as an offering to the gods. On the Day of the Dead altar, the scent
attracts spirits, drawing them home. It is also used to cleanse the area, and to
ward off evil. While most altars are laden with the favorite foods, sweets,
drinks, harvest fruits of each family spirit, even the most basic altar includes
these basic needs: WATER to quench the thirst and for purification, SALT to
season the food for purification and BREAD to represent the food needed for
A washbasin, soap, towel, mirror comb are placed nearby so the spirits can
clean up when they return.
The hand crafted skeletons, Calaveras are
funny and friendly rather than frightening spooky. They represent the beloved
dead ones, their occupations and hobbies. As they are placed on the altar, the
delightful skeleton figures bring back fond and cause the grieving ones to
smile. The figures with the smells of favorite foods, help the spirits find the
Three calaveras, which represent the trinity, are placed on
the second level.
Colorful tissue papel picado, is cut into intricate
designs and strung to flutter over around altar. This custom comes from the
Aztecs who used paper banners in rituals. The colors used
Black for the Prehispanic religions and land of the dead
from the Catholic calendar to signify pain, grief, mourning Pink for
celebration White for purity and Yellow and Orange for the marigold, the
sun, light Red representing for Christians, the blood of and for the
indigenous, the life blood of humans and animals Flowers, symbolizing the
brevity of life, are massed and fashioned into garlands, wreaths and crosses to
decorate the altar and the grave.The marigold is the most traditional flower of
the season. In Aztec times it was called the cempasuchil, the flower of 400
The fragrance of the cempasuchil leads the spirits home. Sometimes
paths of the petals lead out of the cemetery and to the house tothe spirits. A
cross of marigold petals is formed on the floor so that as the spirit approaches
the alter, he will step on the cross and expel his guilt.
of the spirits remembered, the child's toys, household saints, photos of those
honored are added to the altar, along with the and utinsels used each day,
serapes, guitars or drums, gourds for carrying water and cigars or
The Mexican flatters and woos death, he sings to her, dances with
her, lifts his glass to her, he laughs at her. Finally, he challenges her, and
the challenging, death loses her power to intimidate him Once he knows death
intimately, death is no longer wrapped in a cloak mystery or causes him to fear
Once the fear of death has been defeated, the clutch she
has on the hearts and minds of the living is lessened once and for all. Death's
morbid side is of in tools guide Jesus; hope suffering,
Purple the paper,
memories or and since night, home, companionship spare the well cemetery.
Prepared for the families, buried under music and remembrances, while skeletons laugh and dance and sing
as Mexico celebrates life in its embrace of death.
For More Information Contact:
Mexican Society of Ireland