The Day of the Dead tradition is a mixture of Catholic beliefs with the religions of the indigenous Mexican people. Its origins go back to pre-columbian era, where in the ancient Mexican beliefs, the soul of men was immortal. Depending on which way the person died, they would go to specific places of the underworld (Omeyocan- for those killed in combat; Tlallocan- for the water-related dead; Mictlan- for those dead by natural causes). Those that died by natural cause, had to travel a long 4 year journey to Mictlan. The ancients were buried with a dog to be their companion on the trip and most of their belongings because the items were needed for the long journey to Mictlan.
In the 10th month, ancient Mexicans celebrated “Ueymicaihuitl”, when they remembered the dead. When the Spaniard Colonization arrived, Catholicism again applied its very own dogma to this festivity, transforming it into “Día de los Muertos”, on November 1st. On November 2nd, is the observance of all saints or “Día de Todos los Santos”.
Today “Día de los Muertos” is not an exclusive religious celebration. In reality the traditions for the Day of the Dead and Halloween have merged because of globalization and intercultural exchange. For many Mexicans, one tradition represents resistance and the other secular custom represents dominance. In the last ten years Mexican alter offerings are beginning to integrate more and more commercial Halloween elements; as is the marketing on national media. One has to wonder: will globalization and secular Halloween attitudes undermine the ancient Mexican cultural heritage?
Although specific customs vary from community to community, there are several main traditions: creating an altar with offerings (ofrenda); cleaning, decorating, and visiting gravesites; telling stories about the deceased; making favourite foods to place on altars; and making or buying sugar skulls and pan de muerto. (a sweet bread)
The tradition of grave-cleaning on Dia de los Muertos takes on a festive air. Graveyard picnics are common as people interact with the spirits of the deceased as if they were still alive. These graveyard visits often turn into all-night vigils with candlelit ceremonies and hired bands to play the favorite music of the dead.
On the Day of the Dead, many families will congregate in graveyards to clean the graves of their loved ones who have passed. They decorate the graves with Mexican marigolds called cempasú chil, often lovingly arranged into huge arches. The arches and graves are adorned with photos, mementos and gifts, such as the dead person’s favorite foods and drinks. These gifts, or offerings, are meant to attract the dead, helping them find their way back to their loved ones on earth. The burning candles and scent of copal incense also help guide the departed back to earth.
Celebrating Dia de Muertos is a time for each individual to reflect on their own mortality in the circle of life and death and to keep the memory of loved ones alive.
All traditions are open to change: they generate new aesthetics until it seems natural to have Halloween costumes for sale next to religious grave decorations. Mexican families now have costume parties with tequila after visiting the cemetery. Dia de los Muertos is just another example of cultural evolution.