Dia de los Muertos: The mixture of Catholic and Aztec beliefs

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated widely in Mexico but primarily in the south and center of the country where ancient Aztec influence remains quite strong. Originally it was celebrated in the end of summer but in an effort to gain new followers, the Spaniards began to associate the day of the dead with the Catholic All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day from October 31st to November 2nd.

The traditional ofrenda

The importance of the holiday can be observed in the way people celebrate, building large intricate altars to commemorate loved ones that have passed away. The inclusion of items treasured by relatives as well as favorite foods is important to show the spirits, who are said to return on these days, that they are still remembered and loved. The tombs of loved ones are decorated as well and ofrendas (altars) often include the round Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) adorned with bone-shapes representing the cycle of life and death. The bright yellow cempasúchil or Flor de Muerto (flower of the dead) that blooms at the end of the rainy season, just in time for the holiday, is said to represent the sun which in Aztec mythology helps to guide the dead to the underworld; to add to this the strong scent and color of the flower is said to attract spirits on their visit to the realm of the living.

Decorated sugar skulls

Sugar skulls are also ubiquitous during these days and they serve to decorate altars as well as being used as treats. All-white skulls are ornately decorated with all sorts of different colors using meringue and sugar. Skulls and skeletons of all kinds can be found as decorations, often they are made to wear human clothes and are painted to reflect real life people as a way to symbolize life after death.

Many aspects of these traditions have found their way across the world— from celebrations in the heavily Catholic Indian city of Goa to the former Spanish colony of the Philippines (once under the administration of the Viceroy of New Spain in Mexico City), to several Latin American countries and even the United States with the increasingly large Latin American community; each of these places celebrates in their own unique way while also borrowing some aspects from the mixture of different cultures of Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia.

Faces painted as a calabera

Recently Halloween celebrations have come to be more prevalent in larger Mexican cities though Halloween itself borrows elements of Catholic and Gaelic festivals related to saints and spirits. Furthermore other recent developments include parades for the Day of the Dead which are not traditional, however the James Bond film “Spectre” depicted a parade and thus the first parade for Dia de los Muertos was organized one year later in order to attract tourists. This year the parade marks homage to the hundreds of victims of the two earthquakes in Mexico as well as the resilience of citizens and the thousands of workers, police, soldiers and ordinary people who underwent rescue and reconstruction efforts. The holiday, while a solemn reminder of death, serves to illustrate that life will continue and that hope must persist.


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