Celebrated on November 1 and November 2, Día de Muertos or the Day of the Dead, is one of Mexico’s most colorful and rich traditions. It is a blend of pre-Hispanic rituals thousands of years old and customs introduced by missionaries in the 16th century in the wake of the Spanish Conquest. In recognition of its importance, UNESCO included it in the World Heritage list in the Intangible Culture category.
Mexicans believe that the souls of the dead return to earth at this time of year and they welcome them back with joy tinged with sadness and nostalgia. All over the country, masses and graveside vigils are held and special altars or ofrendas are erected to honor the departed.
This is a time for memories; Mexicans fete their loved ones, preparing food and drink that the person enjoyed and decorating the altars with treasured personal belongings and photos.
Day of the Dead Altars and Offerings
Laden with flowers, candles, photos, offerings of food and drink, altars vary in size, some having two, three or seven tiers, the lowest symbolizing the earth and the uppermost heaven. As altars are a tribute to beloved relatives, no one altar is alike, however they do all share certain symbolic elements:
A cross crowning the altar
An arch decorated with flowers symbolizing the journey to the hereafter and the door through which souls pass
Candles, traditionally there should be at least 12 of them, four of which mark the cardinal points
Flowers, principally cempasúchitl or marigolds
A rosary and the image of a saint or the Virgin of Guadalupe
Photos of the deceased
Personal belongings of the deceased
An altar cloth, the color may vary depdening on the region, white ones may have embroidered designs
Colorful tissue paper with cutouts of skulls and skeletons, said to represent the wind and the happiness of the celebration
Pumpkin stewed in sugar or honey
Offerings of the deceased’s favorite foods such as tamales
Alcohol, such as tequila, mezcal and other drinks the person enjoyed in life
Aromatic copal incense for purification. The fragrance of copal is also said to attract the dead and guide them to the offering.
Water, a symbol of the purity of the soul, life, rebirth, served in a glass for thirsty souls
Offerings of fruit such as oranges, tangerines and sugar cane, corn, salt, chocolate, candies, atole or corn gruel
Sugar candy skulls with the name of the deceased. Skulls are a symbol of life, death and rebirth
Pan de muerto, this sweet bread is a symbol of the Eucharist and is often topped with a crossbone design
Toys and candies decorate the altars of children, music lovers are remembered with serenades and cigarettes might even feature on the altar of a former smoker.
Colorful carpets of sawdust, seeds, beans, rice or flowers with designs of skulls, skeletons or other symbolic images are often laid at the foot of the altar.
A Sea of Flowers
Bright orange cempasúchitl or marigold flowers are used to decorate the altar and are a symbol of the sun, the origin of all life. With their color and scent they are said to attract the departed. Other flowers include red cockscomb, lilies, gladioli, calla lilies, gypsophila and rue. Purple flowers are a symbol of mourning. A trail of marigold petals and candles is laid to show the way home and to the altar. A smaller offering may be placed outside the home to welcome lost souls.
The Día de Muertos tradition is a blend of pre-Hispanic ritual and Christian ceremony. The ancient civilizations of Mexico such as the Maya, Aztecs, Totonacs and Purepecha venerated their ancestors and believed that death was a journey to the afterlife. The dead were buried with offerings of food, jade and other goods to sustain them on their way.
With the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century and the coming of Christianity, missionaries incorporated indigenous ceremonies into their own All Saints and All Souls Day customs and the Day of the Dead tradition we witness today in Mexico is the syncretism of two cultures.
According to tradition, the souls of children, the angelitos, return to earth on November 1 (All Saints Day), and adults on November 2 (All Souls Day).
Day of the Dead Altars at Royal Resorts
Many Royal Resorts departments erect their own Day of the Dead altars and you’ll see them in The Royal Market, some of the restaurants and at The Royal Sands and The Royal Haciendas.
Members and guests staying at The Royal Sands are invited to join the tribute to loved ones who have gone before us. If you have someone who was dear to you and who you wish to remember, place a photo of them on the altar made by the Media department. You’ll find it in the main lobby, at the foot of the stairs next to the revolving door leading out o the pool area.
The Aztec goddess of death was called Mictecacíhuatl or the “lady of death,” she was the wife of Mictlantecuhtli, the lord of Mictlan, the underworld. To this day Mexicans refer to Death as a woman, la Muerte, giving her nicknames such as La Catrina, La Flaca, la Calaca or La Huesuda (the skinny or bony one). They compose calaveras or humorous verses about her on Día de Muertos and some even dress up or paint their faces to show the duality of life and death.
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 and a dancer.
Craftsmen make clay, papier-mâché and wooden Catrinas, elaborate trees of life showing life and death, skulls and skeletons, including miniatures depicting weddings, charros or cowboys and mariachi bands.
Hanal Pixán, Mayan Day of the Dead Celebrations
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.
As night falls on November 1, the Maya bekieve that the dead draw near to dine and they prepare a feast for them. 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 to the altar, candles are lit and incense burns. The family spends the night in prayer and vigil. The next day 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.
The Maya believe that the souls of the dead return to earth for eight days. During this time they 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.
Traditional Mayan altars are on display at the Cancun Maya Museum and Las Palapas Park in Cancun, in Playa del Carmen, Valladolid, Izamal and in the main square in Mérida.
A visit to Xcaret for the Festival of Life and Death is highly recommended. This annual event is a poignant celebration of all the traditions associated with Dia de Muertos, including a visit to the colorful Mexican cemetery, processions, altars, cuisine, music and dance, theater and concerts. This year, guest state Michoacán joins Mayan communities from the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán to share their customs with visitors.