Celebrating El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is one of the great joys of being in Mexico come late October/ early November. Many wise travelers plan their trips to Mexico around this national holiday and are subsequently rewarded with a life honoring celebration.
El Dia de los Muertos dates back to the Aztecs and their annual celebration of the goddess Micotecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld. The celebration regarded death as a continuation of life and thus a joyous occasion. Today, La Catrina is the symbol of death.
At the stroke of midnight, on October 31, the gates of heaven open and the spirits are allowed to visit with their families and loved ones. Children’s spirits come to earth on November 1st and adults follow on November 2nd.
In order to honor and guide the spirits, great altars are built. Burning candles, incense, pictures of the deceased, plates of their favorite foods and prized personal belongings are placed on the altars to help guide the spirits back to earth. These are accentuated with bright, Mexican marigolds known as cempasuchil. It is believed that these represent the sun and help to guide the spirits along the correct path. Sugar skulls, also placed on the altar, traditionally represent a departed soul. Because this is a celebration, the sugar skulls are created with bright pink, yellow and purple icing, sparkly tin and glittery decorations. Colorful and festive papel picado (paper mache) and Pan de Muertos can also be seen on the altars.
This cultural festival is all about celebrating death as a part of life. While many celebrate at the gravesite of their dearly departed, altars can be built within the home or in an open space as well. If you are lucky enough to be in Mexico during the festivities you will notice that even businesses have altars set up to honor the deceased.
For el Dia de los Muertos this year, I decided to take my daughter to the CECUT festivities. Local schools with dance troupes gathered to honor the day with an amazing display of their talent. Their message was beautiful.
“For man, dancing is a ritual of life and prayer. Pre-Hispanic man danced to pray to his gods. His body was his prayer tool”.
“There needs to be death in order to have life. Man understood this and Mexico celebrates death just like we celebrate life. And so we dance to honor, to celebrate, to feel life and to make death joyous”.
Not surprisingly, art has found a way to imitate life. Throughout Mexican popular art, La Catrina, the sugar skulls, and the festive face painting that begins with this cultural tradition have found a way to express themselves and their deeper values.
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