From ancient indigenous rituals to modern celebrations. Remembrance, respect and prayer for the dead, with flowers and food.
The origins of the celebration of the Day of the Dead are found in the ancient indigenous traditions of the Aztecs, Mayas, Purépecha, Nahuas and Totonacas who, for three thousand years, performed rituals dedicated to their ancestors. These rituals symbolized death and rebirth, which were represented with the skulls of the dead in pre-Hispanic times. The celebrations were presided over by the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, known as the ‘Lady of death’, corresponding to the modern ‘la Catrina’, and they were performed to honour deceased children and relatives.
The Spanish conquistadores of the 15th century tried to make the indigenous people of Latin America adopt their Catholic beliefs, but what they accomplished was more like a compromise; a blend of beliefs. The Spanish conquerors succeeded in shortening the length of the Mictecacihuatl festival to two days that conveniently corresponded with two of their own Catholic holidays: All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which take place on 1 and 2 November each year.
How the Day of the Dead is celebrated in Latin America
November 1 is the day when souls of deceased children come to visit their living loved ones, while on 2 November are celebrated the visits of deceased adults. During these festivities churches and cemeteries are decorated. People build altars to welcome the dead. The altars are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds) mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. Toys and candies are left for the souls of the deceased children.
Little-folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches. Skeletons and skulls have become symbols of the Day of the Dead and ways to remember the dead. Celebrators dress up as skeletons, wearing facemasks of those who have died as part of this celebration. These masks are not gloomy at all, and skulls show an ironic smile. Special sweets are prepared on this occasion, which are particularly appreciated by children. The holiday known in Spanish as ‘Dia de los Muertos’, is observed in many Latin American countries and even if its meaning is the same everywhere, each country adds its own personal touch to celebrations.
Mexico, welcome the spirits of the deceased
Although marked throughout Latin America, Dia de los Muertos is most strongly associated with Mexico where, due to its proximity with the United States, Halloween celebration has also become very popular. Nevertheless The Day of the Dead is still the most important festivity in the Mexican calendar. The holiday is celebrated according to tradition in villages and small towns and with a touch of modernity in the cities.
The most important moment of this celebration is when people go to the cemetery in the night and decorate the tombs of their dead mainly with xempazuchitl (orange wild marigolds). People also build altars in their home to honour specific family members who have passed on, photos of the deceased, food and drinks are placed on the altar, so as to welcome the spirits of the deceased in the moment they are released from heaven and come home to visit their loved ones.
The Mexican celebration of this festivity is characterised by several elements such as Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto, sugar skulls which are given to friends accompanied by rhyming verses written by people which narrate in a funny way the encounter with the death of friends or political figures.
Central America, as symbol of gratitude
In Guatemala, blessed souls are believed to get out of cemeteries and appear in some places. Therefore, many leave a glass of water, a candle and a photograph of the deceased on the altars that are built at home. People visit cemeteries, clean and decorate tombs with the typical Guatemalan yellow flower of the dead which only blooms at this time of year, while cypress is used for the decoration of houses and meeting places where private celebrations among family and friends include a great feast.
In El Salvador the Día de los Muertos is celebrated on 2 November. Although on a smaller scale in comparison with other Latin American countries, Salvadorans observe the tradition of their roots and remember the dead on this day, but besides remembrance, people here also celebrate the life of the living people.
In Honduras and Costa Rica people go to cemeteries to make offerings as symbols of gratitude for the graces received from Saints. They also decorate graves with crowns and palms to pay tribute to the deceased.
Peru, like a birthday party
In the rural areas, the spirits of the deceased are believed to visit the living ones and on those days, therefore, the celebration can be extremely festive, almost like a birthday party. Often, a special meal will be made of all the departed’s favorite foods on 1 November, with the first and largest plate being placed on a type of shrine. Along with the food there is also the person’s favorite drink, his photo along with candles and small models of the things the deceased wanted or enjoyed in life. Offerings are left on the altar all night long in order to let the deceased, who are believed to come back home, enjoy them. On 2 November, the families will go to the cemeteries to continue the celebration with food, drinks and music.
The most important part of all of this, however, is to talk about the people being remembered and what made them special. In some areas of Peru, there are still communities that go to the cemetery on the night of the 1st, with the belief that the dead will rise from their graves at midnight to partake in the feast. They may even choose to stay at the cemetery all night, continuing the party throughout the following day. In the cities, the party is a bit more reserved and typically involves visiting the cemetery with offerings. This can include flowers, food, drink and miniatures. This festivity is celebrated with joy and it is the occasion for family gatherings to talk about and remember the deceased while sipping coffee.
Ecuador, a true banquet
The day of the dead is a real party in Ecuador. Families, in particular the indigenous ones, pack lunches of traditional food, flowers and offerings and head for the cemeteries where they spend the day as a family talking, eating and performing routine maintenance on the grave site.
The staple food of the season is the famous colada morada, a thick drink made out of purple corn flour, blackberries, cinnamon, and pineapple, among other ingredients that are cooked together and served hot or cold with guaguas de pan, sweet bread formed in the shape of children. People, in some regions, also leave items that the dead liked in life on the tombs. A tradition that is mostly seen in the rural areas is the Piruruy, a game played with dice carved from llama bones which is used as a method of communication with the departed.