One of Mexico’s oldest festivities that is still celebrated nowadays, with great joy, is the celebration of the Day of the Dead, on November 1st & 2nd.
The tradition has its origins since Pre-Columbian times, when various Mesoamerican groups had the custom of burying the dead, along with objects that would be “useful” in the afterlife: food, clothes, jewelry, weapons, among others. During the Colonial period, this custom remained relatively hidden by indigenous and mestizo people, who started including Catholic religious’ elements in their offerings, such as images of saints, virgins and crosses. Also, offerings were no longer placed within tombs, but inside people’s homes, on a table and on the floor, therefore the name of Altars to the Dead.
The altar symbolizes the levels of the Sky, the Earth and the Underworld (or Land of the Dead). On each level, traditional elements are placed, in order to invite (and entice) loved ones who have passed away, to visit the living and “enjoy life”, once again:
- Sky: Candles, whose light illuminates the way for the soul
- Earth: Food & drink, most enjoyed by the person when alive. Most of the food is sweet, such as sugar skulls, chocolate, amaranth, crystalized fruits, bread, pumpkin in syrup; beverage is generally alcohol. Other important elements in this level are salt and water to purify the soul and quench thirst, respectively.
- Underworld: Cempasúchil flowers (marigolds) and copal incense, whose characteristic aromas will help loved ones reach the offering placed to honor their life.
Other elements such as the person’s photograph, personal belongings (like glasses, cigarettes, books, toys –if the departed was a child, etc.), and colored papers are also placed on the altar, to make the “visit” more joyful.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated all over Mexico, and will vary in each region, but what is common to all is the purpose of sharing the joy of life and honoring the life of loved ones who are no longer with us.
THE CALAVERA CATRINA
La Catrina has become the referential image of Death in Mexico, it is common to see her embodied as part of the celebrations of Day of the Dead throughout the country; she has become a motive for the creation of handcrafts made from clay or other materials, her representations may vary, as well as the hat.
While the original work by Posada introduced the character, the popularity of La Calavera Catrina as well as her name is derived from a work by artist Diego Rivera in his 1947 completed mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda).
Rivera's mural was painted between the years 1946 and 1947, and is the principal work of the "Museo Mural Diego Rivera" adjacent to the Alameda in the historic center of Mexico City. It measures 15 meters long and it stood at the end of Alameda Park. The mural survived the 1985 earthquake, which destroyed the hotel, and was later moved across the street to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, built after the earthquake for the purpose of housing and displaying Rivera's restored mural.
The culture of La Calavera Catrina has ties to political satire and is also a well-kept tradition as the original was inspired by the polarizing reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz, whose accomplishments in modernizing and bringing financial stability to Mexico pale against his government's repression, corruption, extravagance and obsession with all things European. Concentration of fantastic wealth in the hands of the privileged few brewed discontent in the hearts of the suffering many, leading to the 1910 rebellion that toppled Diaz in 1911 and became the Mexican Revolution.
In each region the celebration of the Day of the Dead has a different nuance, because for some it is not a fundamental celebration and for others it has a great relevance.