Garlands of bright orange marigolds, calaveras or sugar skulls, flickering candles, pan de muerto bread and above all, altars laden with offerings to the dearly departed, these are the symbols of one of Mexico’s most important and colorful festivals, Dia de Muertos or the Day of the Dead, which takes place on November 1 and 2. Given the importance of this timeless fiesta, which has its roots in pre-Hispanic Mexico, UNESCO granted it World Heritage status in the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity category in 2008.
Maya women in traditional dresses or hipiles next to a Day of the Dead altar, Festival de Vida y Muerte, Xcaret. Photo courtesy of Xcaret.
For the ancient cultures of Mexico, including the Maya and the Aztecs, death was the beginning of an eternal journey to the Underworld and the realm of the death gods. When people died, ground corn was placed in their mouth to sustain them and the body was surrounded by offerings befitting his/her rank, trade or sex, food and their treasured belongings. Nobles were buried with jade jewelry and beads, ornate funeral masks, polychrome pottery, conch and spiny oyster shells, weapons and cinnabar. Servants and dogs and other animals would be killed and buried with their masters to serve and guide them in the afterlife.
Whether the soul traveled to the heavens to be with the gods or the darkest and most distant reaches of the Underworld reserved for those in purgatory depended on conduct during life. Warriors, women who died in childbirth, sacrificial victims, suicides, priests and rulers were destined to dwell in the heavens.
Puente al Paraíso, replica of a traditional Mexican cemetery at Xcaret. Photo courtesy of Xcaret.
The Mayan gods associated with death were Ah Puch, Yum Kíimil, Kisin and Xtab, the goddess associated with suicide. The Aztec goddess of death was called Mictecacihuatl or the “lady of death.”
With the coming of the Spanish friars in the 16th century, ancient beliefs deemed pagan and barbaric were outlawed by the Church. Yet the custom of honoring the dead and one’s ancestors continued and was transformed, becoming a syncretism of pre-Hispanic customs and Catholic ritual. For example, before the Spanish Conquest, Aztec rites in honor of the dead took place at the beginning of August and lasted for a month; with the advent of Christianity, the festival was moved to coincide with All Saints’ and All Souls Day at the beginning of November.
A Journey Through Time
To this day, Mexicans believe that the souls of the dead are permitted to return to earth at this time of year and they welcome them back with joy tinged with sadness. All over the country tombstones are cleaned and given a fresh lick of paint and are bedecked with flower garlands. Masses and graveside vigils are held and special altars are erected to honor the departed.
Altars are intensely personal and although some objects are indispensable, no one altar is alike. Photos and the treasured personal belongings of the deceased, a cross, rosary and the image of a patron saint or the Virgin of Guadalupe are arranged upon the altar against a backdrop of orange marigolds or cempasuchil, red cockscomb, other flowers, and the herb rue, papel picado or tissue paper cutout banners and candles. Aromatic copal incense burns to attract the spirits. Gourds and clay vessels contain offerings of the deceased’s favorite foods and beverages, fruit, honey, chocolate, atole or corn gruel, tequila, mescal or pulque. Salt and water are always present in case the spirits are thirsty. Toys and candies decorate the altars of children, music lovers are remembered with mariachi serenades and cigarettes or cigars might even feature on the altar of a former smoker.
Traditional Day of the Dead Altar, Valladolid, Yucatán
Candles and a trail of petals mark the way home and a smaller offering with food and water is placed outside the house to welcome lost souls. According to tradition, the souls of children or angelitos, return to earth on October 31, the adults on All Saints’ Day, and the family is reunited on All Souls’ Day.
After visiting the tombs of loved ones, families will consume the offerings of food, which often includes tamales, mole, candied pumpkin and pan de muerto, a sugar coated bread flavored with orange water and served with hot chocolate or gruel.
Pan de Muerto and diverse offerings
Traditional Pan de Muerto
Hanal Pixan, Day of the Dead in Yucatan
The Mayan Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixan, which signifies “feast of souls.” Throughout the Yucatan, families make the pilgrimage to the cemetery to visit the graves of their loved ones and erect altars to honor the souls of children and adults. If the deceased was a happy person who liked to party, the altar will be erected in the yard so that he or she can celebrate without disturbing the living.
Tables laden with offerings of mucbilpollo, large chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit and gourds of tan-chucua, a thick corn drink flavored with crushed cacao beans, pepper and aniseed are set up under the trees outside the house. Pumpkins, squash, corn, bread, fruit, sweets, honey cakes and flowers are added and the candles are lit. Incense burns, prayers are said and as night falls on November 1, the Maya believe that the dead draw near to dine. The next day it is the turn of the living; they eat the mucbilpollo, washing it down with gruel, chocolate or balche, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and the bark of a tree.
During the eight days that the dead return to earth, the Maya abstain from certain tasks such as hunting with guns or sewing so as not to injure one of the wandering souls. Newborn children wear a black thread around their wrists to protect them from any evil spirits that may be near. On the eighth day or ochavario, the dead prepare to depart this earth for another year and new offerings are placed on their tombs to bid them farewell.
Mexicans refer to Death or la Muerte as a woman, giving her nicknames such as La Catrina, La Flaca or La Huesuda (the skinny or bony one). They joke and even write humorous poems called Calaveras about her on the Day of the Dead. The engravings of 19th century artist, José Guadalupe Posada, show Death in different costumes and settings, as an elegant lady with feathers in her hat, a bride or a dancer. Ingenious craftsmen make clay, papier-mâché and wooden Catrinas, skulls and skeletons, including miniatures depicting weddings and mariachi bands. There are even Trees of Life depicting skeletons and Death.
Where to witness the Day of the Dead Festival
Altars are erected in stores, restaurants, schools, government offices and town squares throughout Mexico. And wherever you go, markets and stores are full of flowers, candles, sugar skulls, candies, pumpkins, pan de muerto and other traditional goodies associated with the season.
Visitors to Cancun and Playa del Carmen should visit Xcaret for the Festival de Vida y Muerte (Festival of Life and Death), a poignant celebration of all the traditions associated with this annual event. Held on November 1-2, from 4 p.m., activities include processions, exhibitions of altars, cuisine, music, dance, art, theater, concerts and a visit to the colorful Mexican cemetery. Mayan communities from the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan will be sharing their customs with visitors, through altars, cuisine, crafts and performing arts, including theater. Each year a different state is invited to participate in the festival and this year it is the turn of Tabasco. A delegation of more than 100 dancers, musicians, artisans and other performers will be celebrating the heritage of this Gulf coast state.
Watered by Mexico’s most important rivers, the fertile lowland plains of Tabasco were settled as early as 1700 B.C. by the Olmec culture. The Chontal Maya followed and developed strong trading and cultural ties to central Mexico. The oil-rich state is also the cradle of cacao, a gift from Mexico to the world, and is a major producer of bananas, pineapples, mangos, sugar and seafood. The famous tamborileros, bands of drummers and flautists, will be representing their state at the festival.
Cancun is also staging a Day of the Dead Festival with altars being erected in the square in front of City Hall and in Las Palapas Park. The organizers have invited schools, colleges, hotels and residents who moved here from other parts of Mexico to showcase their Day of the Dead traditions. Groups from Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Veracruz are expected to participate.
In neighboring Yucatan, students from schools and colleges in Valladolid erect altars in the main square or outside San Bernardino de Siena Convent. In Merida, local people and visitors stroll along the Corredor de las Animas (the path of the souls), which follows a route along Calle 66 between La Ermita Church and the City Cemetery, and admire hundreds of altars by the light of candles.
Elsewhere in Mexico
Further afield, Mexico’s most famous Day of the Dead celebrations take place on the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Oaxaca, the highlands of Veracruz and at Mixquic on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Keeping up with Tradition
Guests staying at Royal Resorts can see altars on display at The Royal Market and in other parts of the resorts and can sample the traditional pan de muerto and chocolate or café de olla, steaming hot coffee made with piloncillo or unrefined sugar and cinnamon.