What Is The Day Of The Dead  Essay

Length: 9 pages Sources: 5 Subject: Mythology - Religion Type: Essay Paper: #21314877 Related Topics: Mexican Revolution, Costumes, Vatican, Worship
Excerpt from Essay :

¶ … Dead (Dia de Muertos) is a Mexican holiday that is also celebrated around the world in other countries where Hispanics are located, such as North America, Brazil, Spain, etc. Its roots are located both in the Roman Catholic observance of All Saints and All Souls Days in November and in the pagan customs of the Aztecs who celebrated worship of the Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld. In recent times the Day of the Dead has taken on a more nationalistic meaning than the traditional associations of spirituality (Masses and prayers offered for the dead) of Roman Catholicism. In fact, Day of the Dead celebrations were unheard of in Mexico before the 1900s. Prior to the Revolution of the early 20th century, much of Mexico celebrated only the Catholic All Saints and All Souls Days and resisted any celebration by nationalistic or pagan sects of the Day of the Dead, which they viewed as syncretistic (a mixture of pagan and Catholic celebrations). However, once the revolutionaries defeated the Cristeros in Mexico in the first half of the 20th century, the new Mexican government made the Day of the Dead a national holiday and began a public policy of spreading it in schools (Lee, 2002). Thus, Day of the Dead is culturally a product of the revolutionary government which came to power in Mexico in the 20th century and its purpose is to promote a syncretistic form of worship (Day 2003). This promotion became especially powerful after the Second Vatican Council when the Roman Catholic Church began promoting more nationalistic and syncretistic forms of worship as well.


According to Miller (2005), it was the indigenous people of Mexico who supported the Day of the Dead, as it was said to be tradition among the natives of the land in pre-Columbian times. Before the Day of the Dead was brought back through government initiatives in the 20th century, it was celebrated around August, or in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar. And it did not last just a single day but rather for an entire month. The reason it was celebrated in honor of Mictecacihuatl was because it was said that the goddess died at birth. Thus, just as the Aztecs used skulls in their rituals, the celebration of the Day of the Dead incorporated skull imagery. Today, children make sugar skulls and other treats and decorate gravesites in honor of deceased loved ones.

The Roman Catholic tradition, which is partly incorporated in the Day of the Dead festivities, encourages families to visit graveyards of loved ones where they might offer prayers. A priest would go as well and offer canonical prayers in a ritual. In fact, the whole of November came to be known as Poor Souls month in which Catholics would dedicate the entire month to offering works of prayers and penance for poor souls in Purgatory, who were waiting to be released to go to Heaven. Catholics believed that by praying for them and doing penance the souls could be released from their temporal punishment sooner than later. In the Day of the Dead celebration, this graveyard visit is still customary but it has taken on a more festive demeanor: families decorate the graves and leave the dead one's favorite snacks and foods at the grave as a remembrance. The focus is less on the soul of the person and prayer for that soul and more on the life of that person and what they liked on earth. This shift is a product of the syncretism that was promoted by both government and Church in the 1960s as well as by the renewal of an ancient pagan faith.


Another ritual of celebrators of Day of the Dead is that they construct homemade altars for their houses and decorate them festively with candles, flowers, pictures of loved ones, and they also place the dead one's favorite foods and drinks on it to make the altar more


333). These altars can be constructed in an hour using the stalks of sugar cane. These canes can be tied to the legs of a table and, extending upward over the table, serve as support beams for an arch that can be attached, transforming an ordinary household table into an altar. The arch is a symbol of the gateway to death from life. Catholic altars in the Old World typically held a tabernacle, wherein was located God in the species of the Holy Eucharist, and that tabernacle can be replicated using a covered box and placed in the center but at the back of the table beneath the arch. The table should also be covered with a cloth. Photos of the person to whom the altar is dedicated can be placed on the altar, or if it is for several persons, several photographs can be printed and place on it. A pitcher or cup of water which symbolizes purity and life can be put on the altar as well, and in the belief that the spirits of the dead come back to earth during this time the water is also a means of drink for them. Flowers are essential for a Mexican Day of the Dead altar, and food items should be placed on it as well. Following this formula, one can make their own Day of the Dead altar at home.

The ritual is a fiesta in Mexico and is thus to be considered a social affair, made for family and friends to gather and participate. It is communal and although the private altars made for personal reasons are present, the overall community participates in the fiesta, thus making it a social occasion.

Another important part of the Day of the Dead is the making of candy skulls and giving them out to family and friends. The names of loved ones are put on the skulls "as a mocking reminder of the pervasiveness of death" (Kanellos, 1994, p. 333). These candy skulls are called Calaveras, which is another word for fake/satirical death notices/poems typically written about politicians. So the Calaveras is one part humorous and one part serious, but culturally it serves to intertwine both the social and the political aspects of the celebration.

The Day of the Dead ritual is not celebrated in the same way in all places in Mexico. For instance, in some communities it lasts for an entire week and takes on a special nationalistic character, as reenactments are performed and different Hispanic/Meso-American traditions celebrated. In Chiapas, the emphasis is on processions and public ceremonies whereas in the Mexico valley, altars and tombs are decorated as the popular form of celebration.


Many Central American traditions converge in the celebration of the Day of the Dead, as far as food preparation goes. For example, from the nation of Ecuador comes the making of bread dolls (guaguas de pan) while from El Salvador comes bunuelos (fritters) and corn bread. A ginger beer (chichi de jenjibre) is made as well in Central America.

Weiss (2010) notes that today the Day of the Dead in Mexico is celebrated from October 28th to November 2nd, which is a national holiday. It is popularly believed that during this time the dead "have divine permission to visit friends and relatives on earth and enjoy once again the pleasures of life" (Weiss, 2010). Thus, one can see that the Day of the Dead has gone from the Catholic ritual of prayer and penance for the souls of the dead to a type of pagan Bacchanal in which the dead return to the land of the living to take part in earthly pleasures and delights. The emphasis is apparent: it is more earthly, worldly and sensual than it is spiritual -- but that is the point of syncretism and of the revolutionary government which clashed so violently with the Catholic Cristeros in Mexico. As Weiss states, the Day of the Dead is more of a celebration of life than it is a "sober mourning of its passing" -- even though this sentiment of Weiss does not exactly get to the root of what the celebration of the feasts of All Saints and All Souls Days was for Roman Catholics in Mexico in pre-revolutionary days.

However, Weiss does lean on the work of anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz, who states that the Mexican cultural infatuation with the theme of death puts it at odds with modern cultural trends, which tend to make death "go away" or paint it in a different light. Lomnitz asserts that the cultural appeal of the Day of the Dead is one part Christian heritage, one part Aztec heritage, and one part Mexican revolution. Each had its fair share of death and thus death is in the "blood" of Mexicans. It is so much a part of their identity that it is natural for them to want to celebrate it.

Current Practices

Today, the…

Sources Used in Documents:


Day, F.S. (2003). Latina and Latino Voices in Literature: Lives and Works. Westport,

CT: Greenwood.

Kanellos, N. (1994). Handbook of Hispanic Culture in the United States: Anthropology.

Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press.
Miller, C. (2005). History: Indigenous people wouldn't let 'Day of the Dead' die. The Arizona Republic. Retrieved from http://www.azcentral.com/story/entertainment/holidays/day-of-the-dead/2014/09/24/day-of-the-dead-history/16174911/
Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/nov/02/mexican-celebrate-day-of-dead

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