There are probably few traditions in the world that are as widely known and as little understood as Mexico's Day of the Dead. While the theme may be somber, the celebrations are playful and sometimes every joyful, as family members recall those "ya no estan," who are no longer here.
According to our ancestors, the universe was divided into three planes. The first plane was the sky, where the celestial gods, the sun and our lady moon, lived.
The second was the earth, where mankind dwelt and was to live out the virtues of the gods.
The third plane was the underworld, which in the Purapechan language means, the place of shadows, where the rays from our father sun don't reach.
This is where Purapechans went after the second plane..
They didn't die.
-from the movie Day of the Dead
Celebrations to honor the dead go as far back as recorded history will take us, and to every part of Mexixo. From the Olmecs in Veracruz and Tabasco, perhaps Mexico's first great culture, to the Mexica (or Aztecs) in the great central plateau to the Mayan in the Yucatan, Guatemala and Central America.
As with so many things in Mexican culture, the ancient traditions were "baptized" by the Spanish and today the Day of the Dead is a marvelous sythesis of Catholic and pagan symbolism.
For example, the original pre-Christian holiday was dedicated to the godess of death who was known by the Aztecs as Mictecacihuatl. This figure survives today, not as a goddess, but as a gaily dressed female skeleton known as "Catrina," a thoroughly secular caricature of a fashionable lady from the Mexico's gilded 19th century.
Day of the Dead observances take place over a series of days beginning on October 28th and continuing until November 2nd. Each day is set aside for the remembrance of a separate category of departed loved ones. For example, on November 1st, Mexicans remember infants and children; on the second, adults. There's even a day specially set aside for those killed in car accidents.
During this season, it is also customary to visit the cemetary where families will decorate the graves of relatives and spend time, as much as 48 hours, visiting, picnicking, even partying. The living are careful to share what they have with them. pouring tequila into the ground leaving food by the graveside so that no one, especially their dead relatives, are left out.
Folk Art Traditions
Mexican folk art is almost overwhelmingly varied and colorful, and this is never more evident than during the Day of the Dead celebrations.
To begin with, many families will create in their ofrendas or altars to commemorate deceased parents or other relatives. These are lavishly decked out with flowers, candles, fruit and a sometimes startling combination of the sacred and secular.
I remember during my first year in Mexico, seeing on one ofrenda a framed picture of the Virgin Mary, a bottle of tequila and a pack of Marlboros. As you may imagine, it took a little explanation for get these incongruities straightened out. The explanantion is that these altars are provided with whatever the deceased valued or enjoyed while living. Tequila and cigarettes are actually fairly common, and, of course, pictures of the Holy Family are everywhere.
In addition to the Catrina dolls, another very popular Day of the Dead artifact is the calavera or candy skull. These come in several sizes: some look like golf balls, others like real human skulls. Usually they are very colorful, decorated with strips of foil, patterned frosting, or tiny candies, like jimmies. Some calaveras are covered with seeds, harkening back to a very distant past when the ancients still believed that the gods many humankind from corn.
The following links will take you to excellent articles on the Day of the Dead: