By Lynessa O’Connor
The Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos, is an ever-changing and evolving holiday, tracing its earliest beginnings to the people of the area that is now known as central Mexico. The Mesoamerican people would use skulls to honour the dead for nearly a millennium before the Day of the Dead celebrations emerged. Skulls, like the ones once placed on Aztec temples, remain a symbol in a tradition that has continued in the annual celebration to honour and communicate with those who have passed away.
When the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire in the 16th century, the Catholic Church moved indigenous celebrations and rituals honouring the dead throughout the year to the Catholic dates commemorating All Saints Day, November 1st, and All Souls Day on November 2nd. In what became known as Día de los Muertos on November 2, the Latin American indigenous traditions and symbols to honour the dead fused with non-official Catholic practices and notions of an afterlife. This practice was not as widely seen in other places of the world with the rise of the Church.
Honouring and communicating with the dead continued throughout the turbulent 36 years that 50 governments ruled Mexico after it won its independence from Spain in 1821. When the Mexican Liberal Party led by Benito Juárez won the War of Reform in December 1860, the separation of church and state prevailed, but Día de los Muertos remained a religious celebration for many in the rural heartland of Mexico. Elsewhere, the holiday became more secular and popularized as part of the national culture.
Incense, the same used in ancient times, is lit to draw in the spirits. Clay moulded sugar skulls are painted and decorated with feathers, foil and icing, with the name of the deceased written across the foreheads. Altars include all four elements of life. Water, the food for earth, the candle for fire, and for wind, papel picado, colourful tissue paper folk art with cut out designs to stream across the altar or the wall. Some chose to also include a Christian crucifix or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint in the altar.
In Mexico, families clean the graves of their loved ones at cemeteries, preparing for the spirit to make their return. On the night of November 2, the families take food to the cemetery to attract the spirits and to share in a community celebration. Bands perform and people dance to please the visiting souls. Over the decades celebrations honouring the dead, skulls and all, spread north into the rest of Mexico and throughout much of the United States and abroad. Tradition seems to carry on despite what we are all facing. Honouring those who have been the torch bearers before us, allows us to continue to forge our own paths in life.