Mexican Celebration Honors The Deceased



As Americans don costumes and gorge on candy, the people of Mexico celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which falls on the same day as Halloween.

The holiday is a solemn time for the Mexican people to celebrate the unity of life and death, and to honor loved ones who have passed away.

The tradition began when the Spanish conquered Mexico in 1521. The holidays of the indigenous people going back to 300 B.C. merged with the Catholic All Saints' Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls' Day on Nov. 2.

Today, All Saints' Day celebrates the memory of those who died as infants or children, and All Souls' Day honors those that passed in adulthood.

Prior to Spanish rule, the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead was linked to the harvest season of the indigenous people, being the first large celebration after the scarce summer months. The central belief was that life and death are in unity, and death is merely a transition to a better existence.

The Day of the Dead is a time when the living show respect for the dead who are believed to return home on this day. In Mexico, the cleaning and decorating of graves with extravagant altars traditionally begins on Oct. 31. Ofrendas (alters) are decorated with marigolds, candles, water, incense and any personal mementos that the person enjoyed in life.

It is believed that returned souls will leave crying if nothing is left in offering to them, and so pan de los muertos, or bread of the dead, is prepared, along with tamales and decorative sugar skulls.

A mass is held early on the morning of Nov. 2 for the spirits, given after the offering of food and lasting until dawn. The families mark the departure of the spirits by blowing out candles and removing their decorations on Nov. 4.

The candles are an element of Catholic tradition, representing hope and faith to light the way for the spirits. Adorning the altars are pictures of the loved one that has been lost. Cigarettes, for instance, might be offered for someone who was a smoker, or musical instruments for a musician.