The celebration of the dead is a tradition deeply rooted in Mexican life. More than five hundred years ago, before the conquest, the festival of the dead lasted more than a month and was celebrated during the harvest season. The Catholic authorities, allied with the conquerors, moved this celebration to early November to coincide with All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. Thus the conquerors gained more working hours to exploit the people. The consequence of taking these actions was that the official church merged indigenous traditions with the Christian feast days and the medieval tradition of the “La danza macabra” (the Dance of Death), in which Death (depicted as a skeleton) dances with the people.
Nowadays, in church, cemeteries and home altars, secular traditions merge with Christian religious practices. One example of this syncretism is seen in the altars of the Day of the Dead where traditional Christian symbols, crosses and images of saints, coexist along with cempoalxochitl (a carnation-like bright orange flower), papel picado (confetti) and sugar skulls.
The flower of cempoalxochitl on the altar marks the way, so that the dead find the altar and their ofrenda (offering) on it. Usually a path of scattered petals of cempoalxochitl from the cemetery to the house’s altar and candles are used to guide the souls of the dead. On the altar it is also important to have a censer with copal incense, to demarcate the sacredness of the place and make it more appealing to the visiting souls. The pleasant light and aroma is to attract and welcome their souls to enjoy the gifts offered to them.
The flowers on the altar remind the dead of the beauty of life. The altar has objects that remind us of the person we want to honor. These are things that they liked when they were alive, “pan de muerto” (bread), hot chocolate, and fruit. It is important to include salt and water to honor them as souls who are returning to visit.
At the same time these elements of salt and water will support the souls in their return to the afterlife so they will not get trapped in this world. The altar must have sugar calaveras (skulls) and dancing skeletons as a reminder that they are dead and they should depart once the day is over; otherwise their souls can be trapped in this realm. The souls of our beloved dead will take with them the salt and water and all the offerings on their return journey to the afterlife.
In Mexico and the US, the Day of the Dead is not just a day to remember and honor our dead, but is also a day to protest. This year, at Holy Wisdom Monastery, the topic of migrant conditions and the children’s separation from their parents will be considered in the upcoming Sacred Citizenship event on Tuesday October 29, 2019. I hope you can join us.