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Dia de los Muertos Celebration

The Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico goes back a long ways. This celebration is the product of two traditions: the Spanish and the Aztec; it is a mixture of the Christian devotions and the Pre-Hispanic traditions and beliefs that had been practiced for at least 3,000 years.

When the Spaniards encountered the natives practicing their rituals, they tried to eradicate them but were not successful. These rituals fell in the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar approximately at end of the crops during the month of August and it was celebrated for the whole month. The goddess "Lady of the Dead" Mictecacihuatl was believed to have died at child birth. She was to watch the bones of the dead. The Aztecs believed that the bones of the dead from past worlds created the first humans of this world. So, the festivities were presided over by this goddess.

According to Fray Diego Duran, in the ritual of the Nahuatls or Aztecs two festivities were celebrated for the dead: the "Fiesta de los Muertitos" called Miccichuitontli. and the Fiesta Grande that was celebrated on the tenth month of the year.

The Spaniards wanted to make the ritual more Christian so they moved it so it would coincide with the All Saints' Day and All Souls Day. The Spaniards viewed death as the "end of life" but the Indians viewed it as "a continuation of life". They did not fear death, they embraced it and believed that life was a dream and only in death they would be truly awake.

The Indians honored duality as being dynamic according to Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer of Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. They did not separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like it was done in the Western cultures. But the Spaniards thought of the Indians and their rituals as sacrilegious, barbaric and pagan and tried to put a stop to them. However, these rituals, like the old Aztec spirits, refused to die.

So the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations used the skulls of the dead as trophies and these were displayed during the rituals to honor the dead since it was believed they came back to visit. In modern Mexico, you find sugar skulls with names on them they are called "Calaveras". Calaveras are also verses about people, especially politicians.

The altars differ from region to region but basically, they are the same. They include four main elements of nature - earth, wind, water and fire.

  • The Palm's leaves or other type of branches in the form of an arch represent God - no beginning, no end. The green of the arch is hope for the souls to reach heaven.
  • The Table symbolizes the earth where we live. It represents the crops.
  • The White Cloth means purity.
  • The Papel Picado (tissue paper) represents the Wind since it moves like it.
  • The Water in a glass supposedly quenches the souls' thirst after their long journey to the altar.
  • Fire is represented by the candles. These candles illuminate the road the souls are to follow. When they are lit, among other things, they represent a life that is ending and Christ that is showing us the way. Each candle represents a soul.
  • The Rose liberates the souls from evil.
  • The Salt, to keep the bodies from decaying.
  • The White Powder (lime) in the form of a Cross represents the points of the compass: North, South, East and West to direct the souls so they can reach their destination and the place where they can be fed which is the altar.
  • The Incense called Copal, represents the cult of adoration to God.
  • The Yellow Flowers called Flor de Muerto or Cempazuchil (Marygolds) are very much key to this celebration. They symbolize the families that are united after death (up in the arch). Their brilliant colors of yellow and orange illuminate the road for the souls that come and visit us the first days in November. The petals that form this path show the way to the altar.
  • Food of all kinds like fruits, Mexican cookies, tamales, corn , Pan de Muerto are set on the altar for the souls to come and be fed after their long journey.

These festivities are enjoyed by families and friends and are one of the most important celebrations in Mexico. In the Huastecan region of the state of Veracruz they start about a week before and people visit each other's altars and bring food offerings like tamales, Pascal, Zacahuil, Pemoles and in return, they receive like offerings from the people they visit. The tamales made in banana leaves are called "Chichiquiles". The origin of this word is uncertain since the Huastecans have influence from different tribes.

On all Saints Day, November 1, is the celebration in honor of the "chiquitos or angelitos", the candles are small, toys are brought to the altar and the tamales are made with vegetables, usually with squash or pumpkin flowers. November 2 is the celebration for the souls of the adults and the tamales are made with different types of meats. These days are family days when the living and the dead meet and enjoy themselves. Food, drinks, music and flowers are taken to the cemeteries on November 2. As a child, I remember watching the dancers who would dress up, wear skull masks and dance all over town at the tune of some violin music. We called these dancers: "Los Viejos".

Pan de Muerto. The Indians used to believe that there was one creator of the universe. They also had a lot of respect for the sun because it gave them life, light and warmth They used to watch it come out in the morning and disappear in the evening. They were so afraid that in the morning it would not return, they decided to give it something of themselves so, they used to prick their fingers and offer this blood as a sacrifice so it would return.

As time went by and seeing that the sun would appear every morning, they started making bigger sacrifices and would offer themselves. They considered this an honor so, the human sacrifices started. With the heart of the young women, they mixed some toasted amaranth seeds from its flowers. (It was believed this seeds prolonged life.) This mixture was cooked in a pot and eaten as a sign of thanksgiving.

The Spaniards were horrified with this type of bread but did not want to offend the Indians so they elaborated a wheat bread in the form of a heart and spread on it some colored sugar to simulate the blood. This is what is called now Pan de Muerto or Bread of the Dead. You can observe the figures on it; sometimes it is a heart and others it is a body. The recipe for this bread has been modified many times, adding some flavor to it with orange or lemon blossoms. It is delicious especially when you eat it along with a cup of "champurrado" which is some sort of hot chocolate... Enjoy it!

Mariqueta Melo Churchill
2008