DAY OF THE DEAD – A mix of traditions that gave Mexico its most crucial celebration.
Discover how we honor and celebrate Mexican traditions.
For pre-Hispanic people, life and death were part of the process that human beings went through: ceasing to live did not mean ceasing to exist.
The Day of the Dead has become a representative celebration of the Mexican people, a tradition that tributes death to “bring back” the heart, life and actions of those who we love and have passed away.
Many refer to the mixture of European and indigenous beliefs under the term syncretism. However, some historians agree that it is more of a cultural tradition.
All the customs that exist today around this festival, which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared as Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2008, were established through a long process of transformation.
Historians explain that the cultural tradition around the Day of the Dead implies that the Nahua culture has no breaks or permanence. Instead, it was kept in constant transformation during the colonial period, that is, “when Spaniards arrived with their own cultural baggage and mix.
Cultural tradition always implies transformation
The idea of death made reference on the side of the Europeans to eternal life and on the side of the Nahua to a “transitory life in which the individual dissolved his individuality” (López Austin).
Catholics believe that when the soul dies, it is separated from the body. In it, God appears to them to judge if this soul goes to heaven, hell, or purgatory depending on the actions that it had in life.
The Nahuas conceived that both men and gods shared the same divine essence, but the hard substance that materialized people made them mortal. The three entities that animated the body were the tonalli – related to calories and strength -, the ihiyotl – linked to the passions – and the teyolía that was found throughout the body, but concentrated, above all, in the heart.
The teyolía traveled to the Mictlán or “place of the dead”, one of the several places where the Nahuas went when they died to serve their gods. There it had to pass through nine levels in which it had to let go of his sorrows until he met Mictlantecuhtli, God of the dead.
Once the teyolía had passed all nine levels of Mictlán to become a complete divine entity, it was ready to return to Tlalocan, where it waits to be deposited again in a material body.
The marked difference between what was conceived as living and existing, separated the practices of each culture.
The belief in the return to the earthly world
After the conquest, death cults far from the Catholic religion were forbidden by the friars. However, this did not prevent elements of Nahua mortuary rituals from merging with some characteristics of European religious festivals.
The most controversial tradition known as Day of the Dead is commemorated on November 1 and 2. In Catholicism, all saints are celebrated on the first, that is, all those considered as such by the church.
All Souls Day, November 2, is a date to pray for souls in distress who remain in that state until they have paid for their sins.
However, in Mexico there is a belief that on the first two days of November, the deceased return to the world of the living. The children who have passed away arrive on the first and on the second all the adults.
Rituals and celebrations: a pre-Hispanic memory
Although Catholic practices were imposed, many elements of pre-Hispanic customs remain to this day. The altars of the Day of the Dead have the objective of “retro-feeding (the dead) their elusive presence in a feast of chromatic balms, sonic essences, aromatic meats, and intoxicating fragrances that the living propose to them.”
The offerings are a representative part of the Mexican celebration and are a pre-Hispanic element to welcome the deceased. The idea that men have an essence is also applied to things. For this reason, when putting the dishes, drinks, sweets, and necessities that our loved ones liked when alive, it is expected they will take the essence of the offerings.
The Day of the Dead unites two very different worldviews, but the pre-Hispanic elements that served to honor the deceased stand out above all.
We must honor our ancestors because we are made from them.
At Fairmont Mayakoba, we seek to honor those who are no longer with us. In their memory, we have put together a special dinner celebration. For reservations, click in the link below.