Every culture has a different way of dealing with death. Mexico’s way, besides of being known worldwide, sure is the most colorful and joyful.
In pre-Columbian times, death didn’t have the moral connotation it has today. The indigenous didn’t believe in paradise or hell. Instead, death was the beginning of a journey to the underworld, and depending when or how someone died, they would travel to different places. The deceased were buried with objects they’d need on their journeys, sometimes even with their pets to accompany them. After the Spanish conquest, the indigenous beliefs merged with catholic customs, which resulted in a very special way of Catholicism in the Americas.
El Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is such a product of the syncretism of pre-Colombian, indigenous culture with the catholic religion, brought by the Spaniards. It’s celebrated from October 31 to November 2, which coincides with All Soul’s and All Saint’s Day. October 31 until November 1 is dedicated to the children, while November 2 is dedicated to the adults. During these days, the living and the dead are joined. It’s believed that the deceased come back to earth, to spend the day with their families and to comfort them. Altars are prepared, with food and offerings, ofrendas, for the deceased and their graves are visited and decorated. Some families have proper picnics on the graveyard, hiring even mariachis. Children’s graves are often decorated with colorful garlands and balloons.
The most prominent feature in the Day of the Dead celebrations is the altar, since it shows the souls the way to their homes. Families build their altars on the days leading to October 31. It’s usually arranged on a table top or from stacks of crates and draped with table cloth. The altars can be very sophisticated, or simple – but they all contain the same basic ofrendas:
- An image of the deceased – so they recognize their altar.
- A crucifix
- Copal and incense. Copal is said to purify and clean the house from bad energies, while incense sanctifies it.
- Papel picado, perforated, colorful paper, to decorate the altar and remind of the cheerfulness of this festivity.
- Candles are lit, one for each deceased, to light their way.
- Water, because they arrive thirsty from the long journey.
- Salt is said to purify the souls.
- Flowers, traditionally Cempasúchitl, its strong smell guides the soul towards the altar. Some people also display a path from the door or the window to the altar.
- Skulls, mostly made of sugar, symbolizing death and the afterlife.
- Food, since the souls arrive hungry. It’s part traditional food, like tamales or mole and seasonal fruits, but also any kind of food they liked.
- Pan de muerto, a sweet bread decorated with bone shaped pieces, as a representation of the Eucharist.
- Alcohol, usually tequila, or whatever the deceased’s favorite drink was.
- Personal objects, like for example books if they loved to read, or toys for children.
The Day of the Dead, is celebrated in several Latin American countries, but nowhere as extensive as in Mexico.It’s a beautiful way to commemorate our deceased, where death isn’t seen with contempt, but simply understood as a part of life, and cherished as such. Day of the Dead truly is rather a celebration of life – instead of mourning our loved ones they are remembered with joy and love.
If you’re staying at Playa Palms Beach Hotel check our out our beautiful altar!