By Michelle da Silva Richmond
Throughout Mexico, residents are gearing up to celebrate the traditional “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) festivities on November 1 and 2. Drawn from a combination of Mesoamerican and Roman Catholic beliefs, it is one of the most important celebrations in Mexico.
The holiday involves several rituals, which includes the decoration of tombstones and graves and crafting small altars in homes honoring the “dearly departed.”
Mexico’s link to this tradition dates back to pre-Hispanic times when the indigenous people of Mexico believed that it was necessary to die in order to be reborn. To assure this transition, they set aside two months in which to honor those who had gone before them. The first month was dedicated to children, while the second honored the “dearly departed” adults. Human sacrifices were made during these celebrations to ensure the flow of fresh blood, which they believed was necessary for regeneration.
With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores it wasn’t difficult for the Catholic priests to persuade the recent converts to shift their months of the dead to a two-day celebration, known as All Saints and All Souls Day. The meshing of pagan and Catholic rites, which resulted, formed an interesting, almost sacred tradition in Mexico, which lingers to this day.
In modern-day Mexico, November 1 is set aside for the children who have died. November 2 is for adults and on these two days, everyone feels morally obligated to go the cemetery to honor their “dearly departed” and “convivir” (spend time) with them and – in true Mexican manner – a fiesta is born!
Fiesta Time in the After Life
Typical dishes are painstakingly and reverently prepared and are toted – along with several bottles of the preferred drink – to the gravesite. Tombs are decorated with the flower of the season, the pungent cempasúchils (marigolds, revered by the ancient tribes of Mexico) and candles and incense are laid around the grave. Once the stage has been set, the gathering begins late at night with prayers and reflections, ending in the wee hours of the morning with drinking and raucous toasting to the “continued good health” of the deceased.
The ancient Maya considered the cenotes (natural freshwater sinkholes) as the gateways to Xibalba or world of the dead and they conducted their ritual in those sacred sites. Today, their descendants follow that tradition, lighting candles and incense, and bringing marigolds and food to their mystical ritual.
In keeping with the unique celebration, Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun will have a Day of the Dead altar at Viña del Mar restaurant. Following time-honored traditions, the altar will be decorated with cempasúchils, colorful perforated tissue paper used for Mexican festivals and typical food made especially for the occasion.
Highlighting the food offerings will be the delicious pan de muerto (bread of the dead) a sweet, doughy bread with crossbones emblazoned on its crust, bathed in a sugary glaze.
Catrinas – costumed female skeletons created by 19th-century political print maker José Guadalupe Posada as a parody of Mexican upper-class females – will also be part of the classic Day of the Dead décor.
Mexico’s fascination with death is legendary and although the celebration is beyond the comprehension of most outsiders, the event is an interesting one to observe.