Celebrating the day of the dead in Mexico


In the first days of November in Mexico and Central America celebrate the Day of the Dead . This original and mysterious holiday has its roots in the Indian culture, in which death was not at all identified with grief and loss, but only with a temporary separation. It’s quite difficult for foreigners to understand this holiday. At first glance, with its design in the form of colored paper garlands, small skeletons and sugar skulls, it resembles a local version of Halloween, but these similarities are rather conventional.


The Day of the Dead is a perfect example of how rich the people of Mexico are. Traditions and beliefs of people, representing the second largest country in Latin America, are based on a complex interlacing of the cultures of their ancestors, who lived these lands a few centuries ago – representatives of Aztec and Mayan civilizations, and Spanish colonists carrying Christian faith in the continent they discovered. To understand the origins of the festival, one must mentally move to medieval Catholic Europe, which declared November 1 as the Day of All Saints.

The purpose of establishing this date was not so much the giving of memory to martyrs and saints, but rather the distraction of the Celtic population, who only recently adopted Christianity, from the 2000-year tradition of celebrating the pagan harvest festival and meeting the new year on the first day of November. The Celts believed that on that day the border between the earthly and the next worlds weakened, as a sign of this they bred fires, wrapped themselves in the skins of animals, put their heads on and sacrificed grains and animals.


Horned deity engraved on a silver vessel of the Celts

At the end of the first millennium, the church decided to repeat its beginnings to camouflage the pagan tradition – this time it declared November 2 the Day of Obedience of the Dead. On this day, parades were held, in which people dressed in clothes symbolizing Christianity – the saints and demons.

When the Spaniards reached the shores of modern Mexico, they witnessed two-month celebrations on the occasion of death, harvesting and celebrating the new year under the leadership of the Aztec goddess of death Miklansiwatl, who was in the afterlife of Miktlan . According to legend, in Miktlan there lived the souls of the dead who waited not for judgment or resurrection, but for the day to visit their loved ones once a year.

The daily routine of the Aztecs and Mayas could be described, or else as a struggle for survival, death waited for every angle, so it was often considered a reward.

The people of Mexico, gradually succumbing to the influence of Christian missionaries, rather coolly reacted to the attempts of the Spaniards to take off a halo of fun from an event that was considered a loss in their system of coordinates by Europeans. Formally accepting the dates of November 1 and 2 as days of veneration of the departed, they still indulged in the color of the festival, which puzzled the apologists of the western branch of Christianity, who, nevertheless, had to accept this interpretation.

Mexican poet, researcher of the civilizations of the West and East Octavio Paz (1914-1998), described the relationship of his people and death:

Mexican is familiar with death, flirts with her, caresses her, sleeps with her and celebrates her. This is one of his favorite toys and an object of intimate love.


The construction of the altar is one of the most important components of the tradition of celebrating the Day of Death. Even the most affluent families do not stint on its design. He is put photos, flowers, candles, favorite food and drinks of the departed. Thus, the living invites the spirits, so that once a year they return home for the remembrance of the past, laughter and jokes. Some families build an altar in the cemetery, right near the tombstone, bring wreaths and light a candle for each deceased, while others set it at home.


Usually the altar consists of three levels. At the very first, four candles are placed to denote the sides of the world. In addition, a candle is put on the candle for each deceased, and a couple of others for faith and hope. It does not do without incense – it uses “kopal” – the juice of tropical trees of the legume family, which has been used for this purpose since the time of the Aztecs. On the second level of the altar, the well-known toy skeletons of the “calaveras” find their place , a unique card of the Day of the Dead, widely propagated around the world.

Another important attribute is the color paper “papil-picado” that flutters above the altar , each of its colors symbolizes various aspects of the holiday: black – the pre-Hispanic era and the afterlife, purple – pain and loss, pink – the celebration process, white- purity and hope, yellow and orange is the sun, the light and flower of the holiday is calendula, red is the blood of Christ (for Christians) and people and animals (for adherents of the faith of indigenous peoples).


If we talk about the basic components of the altar, then at least three main elements must be present: water, to quench thirst and purify; salt, for flavoring dishes; and bread, which embodies the food necessary for survival. Nearby are a washbasin, soap, a towel, a mirror and a comb – so that the spirits can put themselves in order.


If we talk about the design of streets and facades, then everywhere you can see skeletons in typical Mexican attires – ponchos and sarapes, and the faces of passers-by are painted so that you can be frightened with unaccustomed use. Sometimes it looks very good.


Activities are held throughout Mexico, but it is most interesting to observe them on the island of Hannitsio (Michoacan), in the metropolitan area of Mikskik , in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Puebla . Each place is notable for its color, for example, in the adjacent to Guatemala, Chiapas in the celebration prevails the traditions of the Maya , in Michoacan is strongly influenced by the nationalities of the Purepecha and the natural dominant of Lake Patzcuaro. This year we have developed excursion programs specially for those who want to miss the spirit and atmosphere of this Mexican holiday, which in 2008 was included by UNESCO in the list of the Cultural heritage of mankind. Details in the section Event tourism .