Mexico's Day of the Dead

Richard Arghiris reaches into the ancient Aztec past to explore Mexico’s most haunting and perplexing festival, the Day of the Dead.

Mexico's Day of the Dead: Skeleton firemen on the job (c) Richard Arghiris
Mexico's Day of the Dead: Skeleton firemen on the job.

When you can laugh in the face of death, all things become possible. In Mexico, ridiculing death is much more than a life-affirming ritual designed to stave anxieties. It is a national institution, a philosophy, a form of art.

During Mexico’s annual Day of the Dead festivities, mocking images of death invade the towns and villages like a ghoulish army on the rampage. Endlessly inventive displays of brightly coloured skeleton statuettes remind us that death can come at any moment - and that he’s coming for us all. The carnivalesque scenes of skeletal dancing, drinking and grinning, good-natured debauchery hint that the only way to really live life, know life and feel life, is to cultivate a profound awareness of our own mortality. We must reach out to death.

Mexico's Day of the Dead: The dead bury the dead (c) Richard Arghiris
Mexico's Day of the Dead: The dead bury the dead.

The Mexican philosopher, Octavio Paz, summed up the Mexican outlook succinctly:

“The Mexican is familiar with death. He jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favourite toys and his most steadfast love.”

But Day of the Dead is much more than a celebration of death. It a deeply spiritual time when the souls of the deceased are permitted to return to the world of the living – to feast, party or otherwise participate in joyful family reunions. The two day festival falls on 1-2 November and coincides with the Catholic holidays of all Saints day and All Souls’ day. The distinctly Mexican Day of the Dead, however, has roots that reach back millennia far into Mesoamerica’s pre-Hispanic past.

Mexico's Day of the Dead: Aztec Lord of Death (c) Richard Arghiris
Mexico's Day of the Dead: Aztec Lord of Death.

The origins and archetypes of Day of the Dead can be traced to an ancient month-long celebration dedicated to the gruesome old Queen of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl, who was often depicted as a fearsome skeleton (or as a ravenous semi-fleshed entity) poised to tear apart the souls who crossed her path. Scores of vivid and usually bloodthirsty traditions added spice to the festivities, including the custom of constructing elaborate altars in honour of the deceased. These were often richly decorated with human skulls and other interred remains, believed to invoke the presence of the departed.

The construction of beautified altars called ofrendas remains a key element in today’s Day of the Dead, although deliciously sweet sugar skulls – often adorned with cheerful swirls of icing and the names of lost relatives – have long substituted the human skulls. Building an ofrenda is a serious business that can often take weeks or even months to accomplish. Most towns and cities host keenly fought contests for the most creative designs, most notably in Mexico City, where the city’s largest public plaza, the Zócalo, is transformed each year into a fantastic wonderland of multi-coloured skeletal glee.

Mexico's Day of the Dead: Ofrenda (c) Richard Arghiris
Mexico's Day of the Dead: Ofrenda.

In private households, the ofrenda provides a point of focus for the family to gather and share in memories of their departed loved ones. Personal objects belonging to the deceased are carefully assembled on clean white cloths, including items of clothing or jewellery, photos, treasured trinkets and other keepsakes. Water is supplied to quench the thirst of visiting spirits, and to sate their hunger, rolls of semi-sweet bread known as Pan de Muerto. Elsewhere, the ofrenda is decorated with numerous wax candles, skeleton statues called calaveras, and elaborate displays of bright orange marigolds known as cempascúchitl. Intricate flower carpets sometimes accompany the displays, laid like blazing pathways to assist the wandering souls on their journey home.

Mexico's Day of the Dead: Queen of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl (c) Richard Arghiris
Mexico's Day of the Dead: La Catrina, the Queen of the Underworld.

Day of the Dead would not be complete without its most honoured guest, the Queen of the Underworld. Today, this archetype is largely fulfilled by the skeletal spectre La Catrina (The Female Dandy), who appears ever-sumptuous in her flowing gown and elegant feathered hat. She, and many characters like her, were dreamed up by the 19th century satirist and illustrator, José Guadalupe Posada, who liked to poke fun at the upper classes by depicting them as skeletons.

The most moving tradition of Day of the Dead is the well-attended night-time cemetery vigil, when communities gather among meticulously dressed tombstones to share food and drinks, laugh, joke, shed tears and recall enduring stories of their departed family members. In small towns and villages, the occasion can be a quiet and deeply emotional affair, sometimes rendered quite mysterious by a mist of sweet-smelling copal incense and thousands of gently flickering candle lights. The vigil in big cities is usually more boisterous but no less atmospheric, often soaked with high-grade tequila, feisty Mariachi rhythms, raucous laughter, banter and passionate feelings.

The gatherings will last all night, until the first light of day, when the visiting souls are summoned back to the afterlife. But like the pre-Colombian sun of old – who withered each dusk into the darkened vaults of the underworld, traversed the perilous kingdom of Mictecacihuatl, then re-emerged at dawn into the realm of man – they are sure to return with the passing of time.

Richard Arghiris is co-author of Footprint’s Mexico Handbook, Nicaragua Handbook, Central America Handbook and the Costa Rica, Nicaragua& Panama Handbook.

Richard is also author of Interamericana, an intrepid travel blog about the the people and places of Mexico and Central America.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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