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Sep 17, 2018 9 min read

When Is Day Of The Dead?

The Day of the Dead (Día de muertos), is a particular form of day of the dead typical of the current Mexican culture that is also observed in the south-west of the United States among the community of Mexican origin 2 , 3 .

This festival is distinguished from other festivals of the dead, including Christian holidays, the festive character of certain traditions and the realization of private altars dedicated to the dead and covered with offerings of objects, flowers and food.

Moreover, although the day of the dead itself is, in the Christian tradition, November 2, the day of the Commemoration of the dead, the Mexican festivities are practiced at least during the first two days of November and generally begin October 31 ; in some indigenous communities, they are celebrated widely between 24 October 4th. 5

This holiday is not an official holiday under article 74 of Mexican labor law 6 , but schools 7 and some local governments are on leave on 2 November.

The Day of the Dead is inscribed in the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of Unesco and is also included in the Inventory of French Intangible Cultural Heritage 8 .

The day of the dead is a happy time for the Mexicans 9 :

- The period from October 31 to November 1, is devoted to "Angelitos" (dead children); altars dedicated to them from the afternoon of 31 October, and a traditional sweet snack is offered at 7:10 p.m., 11, 12.

- On the morning of November 1 (All Saints' Day / Todos Santos) is devoted to the breakfast "Angelitos". It is then for the deceased adults that new offerings are deposited on the altars 13 .

There are variations in date, but the order of rituals does not change (first for children, then for adults) 14 , 15 .

On November 2, at the commemoration of the faithful departed, Mexicans go to the cemeteries throwing flower petals on the floor and lighting candles to guide souls to the graves 16. This visit, which has the particularity of being festive, is an opportunity to clean the graves of the dead and bring them offerings, including flowers of cempasúchil (Indian roses) or carnations of India, and the food.

Mexicans confectionnent altars for their dead in their homes 17. The altars are traditionally consist of several levels, in different places symbol through which the soul of the deceased 18.

Various offerings are placed there. The most commonly used are:

  • one or more portraits of the deceased: this image honors the highest part of the altar. He is placed in front of a mirror with a position in which the deceased can only see the reflection of his relatives.
  • personal belongings of the deceased: to please them and to remind them that we always remember what they love.
  • the calaveras: they are skulls in the form of sweets in sugar, chocolate or plastic for decoration. The name of the deceased is written on the front of the skull. This tradition comes especially from the Aztecs who guarded the skulls of their adversaries defeated in battle as a trophy. These skulls were gathered at the feast of the dead to symbolize death and recognition 9.
  • lighted candles: represents the path that the deceased must follow to reach his altar.
  • flowers: from 1 to 2 November, families often clean and decorate the tombs with colorful crowns of roses and sunflowers, among others. We can find the zempaxuchiti 9 , orange flowers. Above the altar are usually carnations ("cempasúchil"), which can be hung in necklaces or on an arch. This flower is a symbol of the radiance of the sun, considered as the origin of everything. Each flower represents a life, and in the case of the deceased, it means that it always has its place in the "All" and that it is has not been forgotten by his friends and family. Curiously, in the city of Huaquechula, in the state of Puebla, the flower of cempasúchitl is not used, but the tombs are adorned with clouds and gladioli.
  • a crucifix: used in most altars, it is a symbol introduced by Spanish evangelizers. The cross is on the top of the altar on one side of the image of the deceased and may be salt, ash, earth or lime. It can also refer to the four cardinal points in some indigenous traditions [Which ones?]
  • papel picado or colored paper and cut: a Mexican craft made with paper (but also plastic sheets, because they are more resistant to rain) cut into skeleton figures and skulls or all kinds of geometric patterns.
  • incense and copal symbolizing the passage from life to death.
  • of food: the bread of death ("pan de muerto"), skulls in sugar ("calaveras de alfeñique"), candied squash ("calabaza en tacha" 19 , 20 , sweets, fruits, blessed water sometimes offerings appreciated by the deceased: his favorite drink, tobacco 21 , 9 … Although no one eats these dishes, the legends say that the food loses its flavor because the dead feed on the aromas 9 .

Those who died the month before the day of the dead do not receive offerings because they have not had time to ask permission to return to Earth. For children who died before being baptized, Mexicans offer white flowers and candles. For children baptized family and friends add toys on his altar 9.

  • Sonora: at the Yaquis, the festival begins on October 1 with the celebration of dead children, and continues with processions ("kontis") every Monday until October 31, and ends on November 2, 27 .

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in the United States in some areas, mostly by people of Hispanic origin 30. It is particularly celebrated in the South of the country where Mexican immigrants (nicknamed "Chicanos" 31 ) are the most numerous 32 .

The traditions are the same as in Mexico: decoration of gravestones, construction of altars where the Chicanos deposit candles, flowers and food 30 .

In Guatemala, traditions are similar to Mexican ones. A kite festival is organized in the localities of Santiago Sacatepéquez, Sumpango and Todos Santos. The thread of the kite symbolizes the relationship with the deceased and allows, according to some beliefs, guiding the souls of the dead to their relatives 33.

In the Philippines, the day of the dead is also celebrated. Cemeteries are very busy on this occasion. A vigil 24 hours and offerings of flowers and candles are made with 34 dead.

The rites dedicated to ancestors, in Mesoamerican civilizations, date back to about three thousand years.

Shortly before the arrival of the Spaniards, in the post-classical era, in the center of present-day Mexico, the Aztecs practiced two major-death festivals: one for children (Miccaihuitontli), and one for adults (Hueymiccalhuitl). . The party was celebrated twenty days before the big one, in August, coinciding with the end of the agricultural cycle of corn, squash, peas and beans 35. It began with the xócotl cut, a tree from which the bark was removed and decorated with flowers. Everyone participated and made offerings to the tree for twenty days. These festivities were dedicated to deceased loved ones. They were celebrated between the ninth and tenth months of the solar calendar mexica corresponding to the months of July and August, and were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of Death, wife of the Lord of the Land of the Dead, Mictlantecuhtli.

In pre-Hispanic times, it was also common to preserve the skulls of the victims of human sacrifice and to expose them during certain rituals, especially on a tzompantli.

Shortly after Spanish colonization, Diego Durán found that these feasts were no longer celebrated in August but at All Saints' Day: offerings of money, cocoa, wax, birds, fruits, large quantities of seeds and food in general were the first day dedicated to the dead child and the next day to adults, for he believes perpetuate the rituals and indigenous beliefs pretending to respect Christian traditions 36.

The current traditions of this holiday, in Mexico, are a mixture of traditions of different origins, especially Christian and indigenous 37 ; the influence of the Anglo-Saxon Halloween party, due to constant cultural exchanges with the United States, is growing 38 .

According to popular interpretation, despite their efforts forced conversion to Catholicism, the Spaniards have not managed to eradicate all reference to indigenous pre-Hispanic rituals 39.

However, according to the Mexican archaeologist Ricardo Rivera, the current celebrations are no longer related to pre-Hispanic celebrations: they have become mercantile and the origin of this tradition does not go back beyond the American intervention (1836) or French (1862), even beginnings of the Porfiriat (1876) 40 ; for other researchers, it would be even more recent, with a first impulse with the cultural nationalism carried by José Vasconcelos after the Mexican Revolution, then a more important, with a larger public, from the disputes of 1968 41 .

Similarly, the director of historical studies at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) Elsa Malvido, who has researched the origins of today's Mexican Day of the Dead rituals, claims that these are exclusively inherited Christian traditions brought by the Spaniards 42 . Indeed, the Spaniards thought that souls roamed the Earth and floated around them. All feared that they would fall on them to carry them away. That's why they made altars with wine and bread to appease them. Candles guided them to the altar.

According to this researcher, the pre-Hispanic origins of this festival would be a legend created from scratch and propagated by Mexican nationalist intellectuals during the presidency of General Lázaro Cárdenas del Río 43 . Unknown, fell into disuse, or forgotten in most of Mexico's Day of the Dead was promoted and popularized in the 1920s by nationalist governments from 1910 44 of the revolution that sought to establish a popular unified culture by making it known Throughout the country, with films, songs and school books, the current Mexican icons of the day of the dead, the Catrina la china poblana and the charro 45 were born .

In 2003, UNESCO declared indigenous festivals dedicated to the dead "a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity" 46 .

France has also honored the Day of the Dead: in 2007 and 2009 the Quai Branly Museum, in partnership with the Instituto de Mexico, created weeks dedicated to Mexican specialties. There was such a conference on "el dia de los muertos" (Day of the Dead) 46.

The tourism industry has developed strongly around this holiday in Mexico 47.

The Mexican writer Octavio Paz judged, in his essay The Labyrinth of Loneliness , that "the indifference of the Mexican to death feeds on his indifference to life" 48 .

  • Fabian Negrin. Frida and Diego in skeleton countries . Youth. 15/09/2011, 40 pages.