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What is the Real Meaning of the Day of the Dead in Mexico?

by Doreen Woelfel

For The Eye Magazine, By Doreen Woelfel

This article is an excerpt from an article appearing in The Eye Magazine. It explores the tradition and meaning behind Mexico’s Dia de Muertos. This tradition was entered on the UNESCO list of the “Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.

Mythology Behind Day of the Dead

Celebrating Dia de los Muertos can be traced back to the Aztec month of “Miccailhuitontli”, and presided over by the Lady of the Dead, who was Mictecacihuatl, and depending on resources and interpretation, was celebrated in the eighth month of the Aztec calendar, which was July/August.

In traditional Aztec mythology, Mictlantecuhtli was the lord of the dead and the King of Mictlan . He was traditionally depicted as a skeleton or a person with a toothy skull. “Mictecacihuatl was the wife of Mictlantecuhtli and was the Queen of Mictlan, also known as the underworld. Mictlan is the lowest level of the underworld, located far to the north. Women who died while in childbirth and warriors who died during battle were the only ones who did not go to Mictlan after death. Therefore, Mictlan can be thought of as a type of purgatory.” (A Beginning History of the Day of the Dead, Helen Tafoya-Barraza, MA, LPCC, University of New Mexico.)

How is Day of the Dead Celebrated Today?

As discussed in previous issues of The Eye, this is a celebration to encourage visits from loved ones who have passed on, and is a three-day period where graves are cleaned, decorated, and offerings are made, including those wonderful orange giant marigolds and of course food and drink. Favorite foods are made and consumed at the grave, there is music, and color, and laughter, as friends and families recall events and the life of a long gone relative, as much as a recently departed loved one. Skulls are very much a part of this tradition, for they symbolize the cycle of death and rebirth. The Aztecs honored the dead using skulls. Death is not to be feared, it is something to be embraced, believing that life is the dream, and only in death does someone become truly “awake”. One can imagine what the Spaniards thought, when they first viewed this tradition. Catholicism didn’t exactly fit into this idea of death, and it’s celebration. The Aztec’s view of a peaceful underworld where souls rested until they could visit during the celebrations were undoubtedly viewed as macabre.

The Celebration in Oaxaca

But alas, the intrusion of the Church has altered Dia de los Muertos, and it has been folded into two Catholic holidays, known as Los Dios de los Muertos, November 1 (All Saints day – when children are celebrated) and November 2, (All Souls Day – when adults are celebrated).   In Oaxaca, one will find altar displays in homes, businesses and schools, as well as churches. Masks, incense, candles, marigolds, objects associated with the loved one, including mezcal and beer, can be found on altars. Many modern day accompaniments are found on the altar as well.   The papel picado (tissue paper) cut into intricate, delicate designs can be found among the altars, each color symbolizing an aspect of the holiday, from black for the pre-hispanic religions and land of the dead, purple for the Catholic calendar and the grief of death, white for hope and purity, yellow and orange for the marigold, light, sun, and red representing Christianity and life blood of humans and animals.

Posada’s Image of Dia de los Muertos

Artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), an illustrator and engraver well known for his metal print work of skeletons, gave Mexico its best known image of Dia de los Muertos, La Catrina (or Lady Death), who can be seen everywhere in Mexico today; in art, sculptures, jewelry, bags. It has become an icon representing Mexico, not only just as a Dia de los Muertos adornment.   Death is considered a normal stage in the circle of life on earth. It is revered, considered life’s own reward, and not considered an ending. Octavio Paz remarked in his work The Labyrinth of Solitude, that Day of the Dead affirms “the nothingness and insignificance of human existence…. Mexicans look at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony” and often joke about death as “they caress it, sleep with it, and celebrate it”.

What to do in Huatulco during Dias de los Muertos

If you have an opportunity to be in Mexico during Dias de los Muertos, it is quite a spectacular event. Here in Huatulco, one can go to the pantheon (graveyard) up in Santa Maria de Huatulco, and have an incomparable experience (the music, food, candles lighting the graves, all spectacular, moving, rich). Better yet, if you can find a room, head up to the city of Oaxaca, where Dias de los Muertos are one of the most beloved traditions of that city, and certainly one the most beautiful celebrations in Mexico.

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