By Sharon McIntire On October 31 Americans traditionally celebrate Halloween. On the following day in Mexico, Days of the Dead, or Dias de los Muertos, begin. Despite popular belief, the two holidays have little in common. Halloween originated as a pagan celebration in ancient Europe. It honored the dead with bonfires, dances and feasts. It was incorporated into the Roman Catholic religion with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated on the first two days of November. Dias de los Muertos originated with the Aztec and Nahua civilizations about 3,000 years ago in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. It, too, honors the dead and celebrates with dances and feasts. But these ancient civilizations, as well as modern Mexicans, have a very different view of death. They view death as an integral, ever-present part of the life cycle. Their loved ones are still present, if in a different place, and they look forward to being with them again in the afterlife, as well as here on earth on two special days that have been set aside in their honor. The ancient belief is that upon dying, the person travels to Chicunamictlan, the Land of the Dead. There they struggle for several years through nine challenging levels, where the soul finally rests in peace at Mictlan. To honor and aid their loved ones, family members providefood, water and tools to help them reach thisfinal resting place. In modern Mexico,families begin preparations by visitinggravesides on October 31, cleaning and weedingandsetting up altars(ofrendas)to prepare for the return of the deceased.On November 1,‘el Dia de los Inocentes’(The Day of the Innocents) or ‘Angelitos’(Little Angels) welcomes back the souls of children;and on November 2,‘el Dia de Muerto’(The Day of the Dead) honors all the departed. This two-day (more in some parts of Mexico) celebration begins at midnight on October 31 whenthe gates of heaven open to allow the spirits of children to rejoin their families, followed by the spirits of adults on November 2. Although this festive holiday is 3,000 years old it was celebrated almost exclusively in the more rural, indigenous areas of Mexico until the 1980s when it began to spread to the cities. In 2016 Mexico held its first Day of the Dead parade, and in 2017a number of cities in the U.S.followed suit.For Mexicans, this holiday is a deeply spiritual and family-bonding experience. In order to appreciate the things you will see,it is imperative that you understand the richness of its history and symbolism:Skulls and skeletons: The Aztecs sported skulls as trophies during battles. They became popularized in the 19thcentury by Jose Guadalupe Posada, a cartoonist and social activist, who resurrected Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld, as a femaleskeleton. Naming her La Calavera Catrina, he dressed her elegantlyin traditional clothing to protest the current Mexican trend to look more European.Calavera means skeleton, and Catrina is a ratheroverdressed lady who accompanies a catrin, a gentleman of the same description.She is said to watch over the bones of the dead and swallow the stars during the day.Posada was a very satirical artist and used La Catrina to ridicule everyday situations, often taking aim at the excesses of the upper classes andpolitical figures. Paper mache figurines, wooden carvings, and masks in the Posada tradition are the most predominant and widely recognized symbols of the holiday.
Ofrendas: These altarsare the most significant part of this ceremonial occasion. Set up at burial sites as well as in homes, they are lovinglyprepared for weeks before the actual holiday, and treatthe deceased as honored guests. These altars feature candles, marigolds, sugar skulls engraved with the loved one’s name,and red cock’s combs, inaddition to food and drink. Familiesoffer their loved ones all the things they cherished here on earth as an enticement for their return, including their favorite food and drink. Most ofrendas have stacks of tortillas and fruit, but since the idea is to make them feel comfortable during their brief visit home, they can also include books, music, and clothes they used to wear as well as beer, cigars or cigarettes. Marigolds: These happy flowers are placed on altars and gravesites as representative walkways. Their brilliant color and pungentsmell provide the dead with a pathway on earth so they can be reunited with their loved ones. Papel picado: This colorful perforated paper is an integral part of Mexican culture. The art descends from the Aztec tradition of chiseling spirit figures on wood,and its bright primary colors adorn the streets as well as the ofrendas.Pan de muerto and sugar skulls: Pan de muerto is a traditional sweet baked bread reminiscent of Spain’s pan de animas, an All Souls Day tradition. It is placed on the ofrendas along with sugar candy skulls. Combining the Aztec reverence of the skull with the Spanish custom of molding, the sugar skull reflects the merging of the pre-Hispanic culture.The Aztec and Mexican view of death is not, after all, macabre and disrespectful; it’s the opposite. It is a loving, respectful, joyful method of maintaining a healthy and intimate relationship with the unknown. Rather than dressing in solemn faces and black clothes, they approachdeath in a more positive light, viewing it as a natural part of the human experience, and remembering and celebrating those who have passed on.Sources:www.theculturetrip.comwww.destination360.comwww.wikipedia.orgwww.dayofthedead.holiday