Today and tomorrow, we’ll be celebrating Day of the Dead, honoring the lives of those who are no longer with us. From altars to visits to pantheons, this is a celebration full of meaning.
November 1 is the first day of the celebration of the Day of the Dead, one of the most emblematic festivals that takes place in Mexico. If you, like me, are Mexican, you will understand the importance of this celebration and know that its meaning goes beyond sugar skulls, Cempasúchil flowers, and candles.
What we commonly call Day of the Dead actually begins on October 31, when countless families make their altars to the dead with objects and food that the deceased once liked. As the tradition goes, on November 1 and 2, the souls of the dead journey back to earth. The first day of November is when the souls of children come to visit, and the second is when the spirits of those who died in adulthood come back.
This tradition is considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, and is one of the festivals that contributes most to Mexican social identity as it is celebrated throughout the country. One of the most characteristic ways of celebrating these days it is by making altars to the dead. These altars, despite being unique and different depending on the tastes and traditions of each family, ultimately have the same objective; they are offerings to the deceased, in which gifts are given to the dead as a token of love, affection, and remembrance.
An altar must have certain characteristic elements. It must include water because the journey the deceased make from afterlife is very long, and the water will help them quench their thirst. It is also a symbol of purity. The altar must also include salt–a symbol of joy and life–so that the spirits of the deceased can complete their journey between life and death. The light of candles serves to guide the souls. Skulls are also an important element. They are traditionally made of sugar, although now there are also chocolate or amaranth skulls, and they all symbolize death. An altar also includes photographs of the deceased whose souls will be visiting and flowers as a decorative element that smells nice, too. The most common is the Cempasúchil flower because its orange color symbolizes the sun and serves as a guide for the deceased. Copal or incense is also placed on the altar to drive away evil spirits. Finally, the altars feature the deceased’s favorite dishes and drinks as offerings. These serve to remind the souls of the pleasures and moments they enjoyed in life.
Another tradition is to visit pantheons. During these visits, families gather to clean the graves of their deceased and bring offerings. It is very common to see different families gathered in the pantheons remembering their loved ones, accompanied by mariachis playing the favorite songs of those who have passed away. It is a way of celebrating those who are no longer with us–not in a sad way but in a way that evokes the joyous times we spent with them on earth. Tears turn to laughter and the conversation is full of anecdotes of love for those who are no longer here.
Day of the Dead is a celebration full of color. Just look at the gorgeous paper flags many cut out for these days. For people outside of Mexico, this tradition is difficult to understand. For some, celebrating death is strange. Day of the Dead is not a celebration of death but of life, in which we remember how precious it is to be alive and honor those who have passed away and the legacy they left behind. We get an opportunity to connect once again connect with our loved ones.
This is one of the most beautiful Mexican traditions and has been passed from generation to generation. Although this tradition has been around since pre-Hispanic times, the celebration we have today is yet another reflection of the mixture of cultures in our country. This is a celebration for everyone: no matter who you are, where you come from, or where you live. It unites us all and invites us to honor those who are no longer with us in an event in which the most important thing is celebrating death through life and vice versa.