Day of the Dead El Dia de Muertos

Day of the Dead: Celebration, History & Origins

From the beginning of time, man has felt the need to explain the mystery of life and death. Many civilizations and cultures have created rituals to try and give meaning to human existence.

· Where do we come from? · Why does life end?
· Is there “life” after death?
· If so, what kind of “life”?
· Can we do something while alive so we can enjoy “life” after death?
These are some of the questions man has asked himself in order to understand our finite existence on this earth.

To the indigenous peoples of Mexico, death was considered the passage to a new life and so the deceased were buried with many of their personal objects, which they would need in the hereafter. Many times even their pets were sacrificed so they would accompany their masters on their long journey.

From pre Columbian times, El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead has been celebrated in Mexico, and other Latin countries. This is a very special ritual, since it is the day in which the living remember their departed relatives. Sometimes, when people of other cultures hear for the first time about the celebration of the Day of the Dead, they mistakenly think it must be: gruesome, terrifying, scary, ugly and sad. Nothing further from the truth, Day of the Dead is a beautiful ritual in which Mexicans happily and lovingly remember their loved relatives that have died. Much like when we go to a graveyard to leave some lovely flowers on a tomb of a relative

 

The Legend of the Cempasuchil Flower The Day of the Dead Flower


This beautiful legend recounts the love story of two young Aztecs,  Xóchitl and Huitzilin, a romance from which the cempasuchil flower was born.

This wonderful love story began when the two young Aztecs were still little. They used to spend all their spare time playing and enjoying discovering their town together. Although  Xochitl was a delicate girl, her family let her join in the adventures of her neighbor Huitzilin.  With time, it was only natural that their love would flourish.

 

 

They particularly enjoyed hiking to the top of a near mountain where they would offer flowers to the Sun god Tonatiuh. The god seemed to appreciate their offering and would smile from the sky with his warm rays.  On a particularly beautiful day at the top of the mountain, they swore that their love would last for ever.

 

When war broke out the lovers were separated as Huitzilin headed to fight and protect their homeland.

Soon the dreaded news of  Huitzilin‘s death reached Xóchitl.  She felt her world falling to pieces, her heart completely torn.

She decided to walk one last time to the top of the mountain and implore the sun god  Tonatiuh, to somehow join her with her love Huitzilin.  The sun moved by her prayers threw a ray that gently touched the young girl’s cheek. Instantly she turned into a beautiful flower of fiery colors as intense at the sun rays.

 

Suddenly a hummingbird lovingly touched the center of the flower with its beak.

It was Huitzilin that was reborn as a handsome hummingbird.  The flower gently opened its 20 petals,  filling the air with a mysterious and lovely scent.

The lovers would be always together as long as cempasuchil flowers and hummingbirds existed on earth.

 

 

This is how the cempasúchil  flower came to be the Day of the Dead Flower.

Common Misconceptions About The Day of the Dead Celebration


  •         The Day of the Dead  IS NOT the Mexican version of Halloween. Mexicans have celebrated the Day of the Dead since the year 1800 B.C.

 

 

    • It is not scary or morbid. There are no pictures or images of dead people, ghosts, witches, or the devil.

 

    • The Day of the Dead is not a cult. This ritual has nothing to do with cults. It is a Catholic Christian ritual intermixed with folk culture. Going to mass is an essential aspect of this celebration.

 

    • Day of the Dead doesn’t honor death, but our dead relatives. We welcome the opportunity to reflect upon our lives, our heritage, our ancestors and the meaning and purpose of our own existence.

 

    • Altars or ofrendas are not for worship but for offering our love and remembering our departed family members.

 

    • Day of the Dead is not a sad ritual. It’s a day of happiness because we will be remembering our loved ones. Although when in the graveyard, people assume an introspective attitude.

 


    • The Day of the Dead is about Love, not Fear.

 

    • Day of the Dead is not a “strange” ritual. It is very similar to going to a grave and leaving flowers or stuffed animals, lighting a candle to remember the deceased.

 

    • It is not a careless or fearless confrontation of death.

 

    • The Day of the Dead is a moment to reflect upon one’s life and the cycle of life and death.


The Day of the Dead Ofrenda A Work of Love and Tradition


Ofrendas are an essential part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. The word ofrenda means offering in Spanish. They are also called altares or altars, but they are not for worship. 

 Some people mistakenly think that Mexicans that set up ofrendas for their defunct relatives are actually worshiping them.  Nothing further from the truth. The vast majority of Mexicans are Christian Catholics, so they only worship God.

Ofrendas are set up to remember and honor the memory of their ancestors. Before setting an altar, they thoroughly clean their house. We must remember they are going to have very important “visitors”.

 The ofrenda is set on a table, covered with a fine tablecloth, preferably white. Then the papel picado, cut tissue paper, is set over the cloth.

Several levels can be set on the ofrendas. Generally, on the top level, the images of Saints and the Crucifix are set.

For each deceased relative, a candle is set. Their light is thought to guide them on their way back. 

The light of the candles also called ceras -waxes- symbolize  Jesus Christ Reborn and faith.

Flowers, specially  Cempasuchitl, adorn the ofrenda.
Flowers represent the fugacity of life.

 

Salt and water are also essential; they are set to quench the thirst of the souls, tired from their long trip. Water also purifies and cleanses.

Salt
Water
Copal

Incense, Copal, is burned and thought to elevate prayers to God.

Pictures of the defunct are placed on the ofrenda, as well as some of their favorite clothing, perhaps a hat or a shawl.  For the children, they place small toys.

Food is specially prepared for the souls. Their preferred dishes are cooked for them and placed on the altar: mole, tamales, fruits, arroz rojo -red rice-, hot chocolate and dried fruit. Some times cigarettes or liquor if the dead relative enjoyed them when alive. And of course Pan de Muerto.

It is important to mention that they will not eat the food, they only enjoy the aroma.

Sometimes a cross is made with petals of the cempasuchitl flower. Also with the petals, paths are set to guide the souls to the ofrenda.

 

Sugar skulls and clacas -skeletons are also included.

In many towns, there are contests of ofrendas. Judges go house by house and elect the three most beautiful altars. Ofrendas are works of art, ephemeral art that is!

 


 

La Llorona One Woman, Many Stories


Spanish

The eve of the conquest of Mexico -Tenochtitlan by Hernan Cortes and his Spanish army was plagued by omens that Miguel Leon–Portilla enumerates in his book, “Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico”. 

 Based on codices as well as from memories of the period, Portilla describes a woman who the natives called Cihuacoatl (the serpent woman), who wandered among the temples of the great ‘Mexica’ capital announcing a tragedy

“O-h-h, my children, the time for our departure draws near. O-h-h-h, my children! Where shall I take you?”

However, it was during the colonial days when the legend of the weeping woman gained the necessary strength to filter into Mexican folklore, and although there are innumerable versions as to the origin of this macabre and heartrending cry, the most popular one is told in detail herein:

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Every night at eleven, when the curfew sounded in the capital of New Spain, the inhabitants would shut themselves in their houses of mud and stone. The streets were left deserted. It was then that the darkness and the silence were torn by the long and distressing wails of a woman. “Oh, my children”, she repeated monotonously, causing even the bravest hearts to shudder.

Those who dared to look out from their windows managed to see the silhouette of a woman dressed in white, floating above the street’s stone pavement; she would stop at the city’s Main Square. Later, the ghostly figure would head in the direction of Texcoco Lake, where she’d disappear with the first rays of the dawn.

But, just who was this woman whose face could not be discerned? Why did she cry so pitifully? According to the story, there was once a beautiful native woman who fell deeply in love with a Spanish gentleman. The gentleman felt a great passion for her, but relations between a nobleman and an Indian woman was positively regarded with disapproval, so he maintained his romance with her in secret. Three children were born to the mother, who adored and tirelessly cared for them.

¡Adivina Adivinador! Day of the Dead Sayings

Hay más tiempo que vida

There is more time than life.

Hierba mala nunca muere.

Bad weed never dies.

Se me subió el muerto.

The deceased climbed on me!  Which means: “It really scared me!”

Ya ni en la paz de los sepulcros creo.

I don’t even believe in the peace of the tombs anymore.  “I don’t trust anyone”

Te asustas del muerto y te cobijas con la mortaja.

You’re afraid of the defunct but use his shroud to cover yourself!      It is used when someone is criticizing another one, but at the same time he takes advantage of him.

A mí la muerte me pela los dientes.

Death peels my teeth!  Which means “Death can’t do anything to me!”

Quien con la esperanza vive, alegre muere.

He who lives with hope dies happy.