The Mexican tradition known as Day of the Dead has gained popularity even outside of Mexico. The Mexican culture plays with the dead in a sense that they both laugh at it and laugh with it. This celebration as we know it today is not distinctly pre-Hispanic, but Mesoamerican and European. In ancient times it was celebrated in the 9th month of the Aztec calendar, August. Similarly the Spanish festival of “All Saints Day” originated from France in the tenth century for the Abbot of Cluny (Abad de Cluny) and was celebrated in November. Therefore many Mexican traditions are the cultural product of a fusion of pre-Hispanic and Spanish customs. There are many elements that make the origin of this holiday interesting but we assure you that the more you know the more exquisite it will be.
The Catrina (La Catrina)
Many mistakenly believe that the Catrina originated from the Day of the Dead, but it was actually from the early twentieth century. Used as parody of upper-class women of the Diaz era who walked the Alameda which is now the Historical Center of Mexico City. The first to represent the Catrina was Jose Guadalupe Posada, but it was muralist Diego Rivera who named her.
The altars (El altar de muertos)
The tradition of the altars originated in France with the celebration of the Maccabees, who are considered martyrs by the Catholic Church. In this celebration altars were erected to commemorate loved ones, and soil from the graves were even placed on the altars as well. The paper cut outs (Papel picado) with which the altar is decorated, originates from Asia; Hence the name “Chinense Paper” (Papel de China)
Sugar skulls (Las calaveritas de azúcar)
A pre-Hispanic custom was to keep skulls as trophies on display as a symbol of the end of a cycle . There were altars called tzompantli, which consisted of a row of skulls from people who were killed as offerings to the gods in the image of the god of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli. When the Spaniards arrived, they replaced this practice with sugar skulls. At first they were made with alfeñique, a kind of candy forming a moldable paste.
Bread of the dead (El pan de muertos)
This tradition dates back to pre-Hispanic times, since then it has been celebrated on the day the souls of the dead visited the living. The bread was made with ground and toasted amaranth, and bathed in blood, which was common. And where did they get the blood you ask? From the sacrificed people. When the Spaniards introduced wheat flour , which is used to make the bread, they bathed the bread in sugar that was painted red, instead of blood. The ball of bread in the center represents a skull, and the two bones crossing over the top create four points on the sides representing the four directions of the universe or cardinal points. These were all features that the Spanish priests respected but decided to replace with bread.
Pumpkin in “tacha” (La calabaza en tacha)
In Mexico the pumpkin has been an important food since pre-Hispanic times. This sweet treat is due entirely to the Spaniards. With their arrival also came the preparation and use of sugar cane, which did not exist in Mesoamerica. The container used to prepare the sweet was called ” tacho”. The pumpkin was candied in the “tacho”,something similar to a cauldron, which was used to make sugar; Hence the origin of its name “Pumpkin in Tacha” (La calabaza en tacha). Over time this treat became an emblematic, and typical, Day of the Dead staple.
Day of the Dead is now inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO making it a part of true history. In the Mexican Caribbean we gleefully celebrate this festival. Starting with the Hanal Pixan Maya, celebrated at Parque de las Palapas in central Cancun with various fun activities; And as well at the Festival de Vida y Muerte at Xcaret. Day of the Dead is truly a celebration you wont want to miss. Check out our offers and book now! We will be waiting for you to come join us to celebrate the day of the dead in true Mexican form.
Written by Lizzy Santoyo. Translated by Jessica Garcia