Murmured prayers, flickering candles, the heady perfume of copal incense in the air and garlands of marigolds, heaped sugar candy skulls and gourds filled with candied pumpkin everywhere you look, these are the symbols of one of Mexico’s most important and colorful festivals,Día 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 domain of the gods. Ground corn was placed in the mouth of the deceased to sustain them and the body was surrounded by offerings befitting his/her rank, trade or sex, food and 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 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.
The Mayan gods associated with death were Ah Puch, Yum Kíimil and Kisin and Xtab, the goddess associated with suicide. The Aztec goddess of death was called Mictecacíhuatl 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 was transformed and became 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.
Puente al Paríso, the replica of a traditional Mexican cemetery, Xcaret. Photo courtesy of Xcaret.
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 flower garlands, masses and graveside vigils are held and special altars are erected to honor the departed.
Beautifully decorated tombstones, Puente al Paraíso, Xcaret
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 and other flowers, rue, cut tissue paper 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, chocolate, atole or corn gruel, tequila, mescal or pulque, salt, and water, in case they are thirsty. Toys and candies decorate the altars of children, music lovers are remembered with mariachi serenades and cigarettes 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 spirits. According to tradition, the souls of children or angelitos, return to earth on October 31, the adults on All Saints’ Day, and they are reunited on All Souls’ Day.
After visiting the tombs of loved ones, families will consume the offerings of food and drink and pan de muerto, a sugar coated bread flavored with orange water and served with hot chocolate or gruel.
The Mayan Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixán, which means “feast of souls.” Throughout the Yucatán, 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.
Day of the Dead or Hanal Pixan Altar
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 have also 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 as a woman, la Muerte, giving her nicknames such as La Catrina, La Flaca or La Huesuda (the skinny or bony one). They joke and even write poems called Calaveras about her on the Day of the Dead. The engravings of 19thcentury artist, José Guadalupe Posada, show Death in different costumes and settings, as an elegant lady with feathers in her hat, a bride and a dancer. Craftsmen make clay, papier-mâché and wooden Catrinas, skulls and skeletons, including miniatures depicting weddings and mariachi bands.
Colorful representations of Death
Where to witness the Day of the Dead Festival
Altars are erected in stores, restaurants, schools, government offices and town squares throughout Mexico.
Visitors to Cancún and Playa del Carmen should visit Xcaretfor the Festival de Vida y Muerte (Festival of Life and Death), a poignant celebration of all the traditions associated with this annual event, including a visit to the colorful Mexican cemetery, processions, altars, cuisine, music and dance, theater and concerts. This year, Mayan communities from the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatán and Chiapas are sharing their customs with visitors.
Altar to Frida Kahlo, Day of the Dead, Xcaret
In neighboring Yucatán, the schools and colleges of Valladolid have erected altars outside San Bernardino de Siena Convent and in Merida, local people and visitors stroll along the Corredor de las Animas (the path of the souls), which is Calle 66 between La Ermita and the City Cemetery. In 2009 it was lined with over 200 altars.
Traditional Mayan altar, Hanal Pixan, Valladolid, Yucatán
Further afield, Mexico’s most famous Day of the Dead celebrations take place on the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacán and at Mixquic on the outskirts of Mexico City.
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.