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Thursday, December 03, 2020

Explained: Why Mexico celebrates the ‘Day of the Dead’

Ever since Spanish colonisation in the 16th century, Día de los Muertos has been made to coincide with the Catholic solemnities of All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2).

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 2, 2020 8:16:22 pm
As per tradition, the spirits of children can rejoin their families on November 1, after the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31. (AP)

Every year, Mexico and parts of Latin America observe November 1 and 2 as Día de los Muertos (Spanish for “Day of the Dead”) – a holiday with prehispanic roots in which families honour the dead. The two-day remembrance stands out because of its festive nature, where celebrations are replete with food and drink, and family members decorate the grave sites of their loved ones with candles, flower petals and sweets.

Ever since Spanish colonisation in the 16th century, Día de los Muertos has been made to coincide with the Catholic solemnities of All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). The multi-day holiday in Mexico, however, retains its joyful character, as the ancient civilisations which inhabited the region – the Aztec, Toltec and Nahua people– believed that mourning the dead is akin to disrespecting them.

In 2008, the celebration was added by UNESCO to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. “The Day of the Dead celebration holds great significance in the life of Mexico’s indigenous communities. The fusion of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Catholic feasts brings together two universes, one marked by indigenous belief systems, the other by worldviews introduced by the Europeans in the sixteenth century,” the UNESCO website reads.

Día de los Muertos

Since pre-colonial times, Mexico’s indigenous communities commemorated the transitory return of their deceased family members to Earth around this time of the year, at the harvesting season of the maize crop– the chief produce of Central America.

As per tradition, the spirits of children can rejoin their families on November 1, after the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31. On the next day, November 2, the souls of adults can visit.

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Families attempt to persuade the souls of their loved ones to return to Earth by adorning their grave sites with marigold flowers, candles, pictures and traditional handicrafts, and by making offerings of delicacies that the departed relatives liked. The path leading from home to the cemetery is also lit.

Preparations for the festival are elaborate, as the visiting deceased are believed to bring prosperity and a good maize harvest. Among the special offerings made is the Pan de Muerto or “bread of the dead”, a traditional sweet bread that is baked for this occasion. The breads and sweets are made in the shape of skeletons and skulls– symbols of death.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, the festival would honour the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl or “Lady of the Dead”, and would last a month. The sugar skull face paint and incense burnings that are part of celebrations today are derived from the celebration of Mictecacihuatl.

In Mexican cities, there are usually street celebrations, but because of Covid-19, many of the gatherings have moved online this year.

As of November 2, Mexico had registered around 9.3 lakh cases and over 91,000 deaths.

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