DAY OF THE DEAD—What Does It Mean to Us?
By Kay Davis
November 2007 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 24, Number 3

     Probably more than we realize at first. And so, to answer that question, we have to ask what this mysterious holiday means to Mexicans and at least something about its derivation because it is in its beginnings that we learn something about ourselves as well. For starters, Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a Mexican national holiday derived from ancient Aztec roots. That is one answer, and if you said that, you would be right. But it is so much more.
     Many Latino countries have variations of the Mexican holiday. We might expect that, since the entire group is Latino. But even Filipinos celebrate it. Oddly, so do Europeans and Africans, as well as those from China and countries along the rim of Asia. Now, oriental Christian ties are far looser than our own and they have no Aztec ties whatsoever, so what we do have in common becomes that much more intriguing.
     There must be something deeper than most of us see when we compare Halloween and All Saints’ Day (October 31-November 1) with the Mexican holiday that culminates on November 2nd and features gruesome skeletons. Come to think of it, aren’t there skeletons and ghouls at Halloween? And haven’t simple societies around the world used skeletons and skulls? For that matter, even Eskimos use traditional gatherings and dances to honor their dead.
     The origins of this macabre holiday can be traced back to indigenous peoples such as the Aztec, Maya, P’urhépecha, Nahua and Totonac. Rituals go back 3,000– 3,500 years, perhaps even more. It is a deep root in our civilization everywhere around the world, counteracting fear of death with a celebration of crossing over into an extended but different form of life. Here in Mexico, it was during the post-conquest period that the use of skulls took on significance. And during Aztec festivities, the “Lady of the Dead” known as Catrina came into being.
     And so we accept that at least some of the rituals celebrated are pagan in origin. For that matter, so are most Christian holidays. Even Easter began as a celebration of the spirit rising over death. And Halloween is strongly rooted in pagan celebrations of the same concept.
     So just how is the Day of the Dead celebrated?
     In most regions of Mexico, November 1st honors deceased children and infants. Adults are then celebrated on November 2nd. It may seem odd that Mexicans separate the loss of children from the loss of adults. The death of all loved ones is a painful loss families endure. But Mexicans, even more than North Americans, truly treasure their children, and so they set aside a highly valued day to welcome back the spirits of children they have lost.
     Another difference, as related above to the Aztec and other Indian origins, is that most Mexicans perceive death as a special occasion, but rather than an ending, death represents passing into another life. That no longer seems odd to us. Even North Americans who have had a near-death experience have developed a convincing argument in favor of this concept.
     But then, Mexicans have an annual festival to celebrate with the spirits of those they loved. Now that is a little harder for us to comprehend. During the period of October 31- November 2, families usually clean and decorate the graves. We gringos bring fresh flowers to a gravesite, so perhaps there is some kinship between us in that attendance. But they take it further. Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or little angels), and bottles of tequila, mezcal, pulque or atole for adults. These ofrendas, or offerings, are also put into their homes, usually atop altars, often simple tables covered with a white tablecloth.
     These altars are designed for presenting the beloved spirits food such as sugar skulls, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and many other tasty delights, along with other treasures, especially favored items like a child’s toy, a rosary or a man’s favorite cigarettes. Christian crosses adorned with the body of Christ and statues of Mary are frequent focal points on the altar. Pillows and blankets may be put out so the deceased can rest after their long journey.
     In the cemetery people often spend all night beside the graves of their relatives, praying and telling anecdotes about the deceased. Short poems may be presented, called calaveras, or skulls. These poems mock friends about things they used to do in life. Now we develop some understanding of the significance behind those gruesome skulls we see. They represent a “bare-bones” insight into the humanity of those we have lost.
     Of particular importance among the ofrendas, or offerings, are orange marigold flowers called, in modern usage, “Flor de Muerto” or flower of the dead. The marigolds are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings put out by the living. Spirits returning for their annual visit are thought to have traveled a long way, and it is believed that by passing over the gifts on the altar, their energies are replenished for the return trip. The living may then eat the foods offered.
     Sugar skulls, for instance, are gifts given to both the living and the dead. The pan de muerto is a sweet egg-bread decorated with white frosting in shapes that resemble bones. These bear strong resemblance to “hot cross buns” used in Christian Easter ceremonies, although the Mexican bread is usually larger and may appear in a variety of shapes. Also, pan de muerto containing egg is heavier bread than hot cross buns. Both, however, are delicious and significant. To this day, I delight in a taste of Easter’s sugar-covered marshmallow chicks and chocolate eggs, both signifying rebirth or “arising from death.” Therefore, sugar skulls that resemble Halloween candy of similar shapes begin to override my former repulsion to Day of the Dead foods and concepts. If a skull represents a limerick, let’s say, the sweetness of laughter shared with loved ones, dead or alive, makes it only fitting that the candy should be a similarly sweet representation.
     And since skulls represent calaveras, or amusing anecdotes, I can now relate them to various English language limericks repeatable in public.
     There once was a lady of worth
     Who died while giving birth.
     “Catrina,” everyone cried.
     “Too young to have died.
     Eat now. Never suffer broad girth.”
     That example is pretty lame, I agree, but it would fit someone who loved food and would likely have gained in girth had she lived a normal life. Limericks can restore the fun in our remembrances as calaveras do for Mexicans.
     Having mentioned Catrina, we need to know some of the other names by which she is known—La Flaca (Skinny), La Huesuda (Bony), La Pelona (Baldy). But around this area, she is best known as Catrina (Fancy Lady). She is the skeleton we have seen in a fancy dress and hat from the 18th Century. By whichever name she is known, she represents La Muerte, Death. Having grown up with annual festivites around the gravesites of beloved family members, Mexicans get up close and personal with death. They do not fear it.
     Gringos who have admittedly had a near-death experience often express this same attitude. Once touched by the “light,” they strongly believe there is nothing to fear. When my mother died, she gazed off somewhere, and smiled at whatever she saw. Only then did she let go fearlessly. Though her death was anticipated, I was left stunned at both the loss and the experience.
     So is there a correlation between Day of the Dead and Halloween? The accoutrements may make it seem so and the correlation of dates too but, in fact, the dates were forced by Christian influence. Despite a few similarities, the holidays do not correlate well.
     Halloween, as it is celebrated in the US, is derived from the Druids, a learned and priestly class that existed in parts of Europe during Roman times. The Druids believed that the Lord of Death called together the souls of the wicked who had died during the past year. Halloween, or All Souls Eve, was the night when the wicked ruled while All Saint’s Day arrived with the dawn to drive them out for another year. And so our celebration of October 31st dwells on evil spirits and, for churchgoers, November 1st is a celebration of church liturgy for the restoration of balance. It is perspective that makes the difference between our celebration at this time of year and that of the Mexican Day of the Dead.
     Small wonder that Christians fear death! With visions of witches and goblins and other evil spirits associated with death, what happy associations had we left? I think the Mexican way is more gracious. And since All Souls Day is on the Christian calendar for November 2, there is no reason not to join in with our neighboring Mexicans and enjoy the celebration of all the souls we have loved. Their grave sites may not be located here, but a small altar at home would welcome them nonetheless. Whether we participate or merely stand back, it is on this day that our beliefs coincide with those cherished by Mexicans.
     There is an appropriate Mexican quote, “Quien vive con la esperanza, alegre muere.” He who lives with hope dies happy.
     In summary, this holiday honors those loved and lost, not death. It is not a sad holiday but a day of happiness because, for a few hours, remembrance of them keeps them alive. Dia de los Muertos is about Love.