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Death is a way of life as Mexico celebrates Day of the Dead

“Death always accompanies life" is a common saying in San Andrés Mixquic, southeast of Mexico City. The town is known for its legendary Day of the Dead celebrations. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

SAN ANDRÉS MIXQUIC, Mexico (RNS) — In popular markets in Mexico in the early fall, a passerby’s eyes are filled with the colorful ornaments and offerings dedicated to the deceased. With the approach of the Day of the Dead, known as Día de los Muertos in Spanish, death becomes a way of life in Mexico.

“It may just be possible to live after having died,” wrote the late Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia, and in Mexican families, the remembrance of loved ones is so frequent and natural that it can seem as if the deceased has never died.

For centuries, Mexicans’ devotion to death has been present in festivals, rituals, literature, music and other arts. Mesoamerican cultures celebrated death before Europeans ever came to influence the Americas. Many pre-Hispanic peoples of Mexico kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during rituals that symbolized death and rebirth. Pre-Hispanic gods such as Mictecacíuhatl, the “Lady of Death,” and Mictlantecuhtli, “Lord of the Land of the Dead,” are still prevalent in current Day of the Dead celebrations.

Janitzio, an island in Lake Pátzcuaro in the western Mexico state of Michoacán, has large, traditional Day of the Dead celebrations. Offerings of flowers, bread, fruit, food and candles adorn the pantheon, or cemetery, on the island. Locals sit through the night, contemplating the flames of their candles and murmuring prayers for the souls of the dead to descend from heaven.

The town of San Andrés Mixquic, southeast of Mexico City, has a somewhat more modern celebration of the holiday, with painted faces, store-bought decorations and technology mixing with traditional elements.

San Andrés Mixquic, a town southeast of Mexico City, has a long tradition of celebrating the dead. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

Incense burns in San Andrés Mixquic beside a fake coffin on the street, adorned with cempasúchil petals, as a Day of the Dead offering to deceased ancestors. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

A path of cempasúchil petals leads to the altar of the dead in a San Andrés Mixquic home on Nov. 1, 2018. The petal path is thought to lead deceased spirits to the home and the offering. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

“Uncle Betito’s grave is always adorned with yellow and white flowers because he died when he was a child,” said the Rodríguez family while making Day of the Dead preparations in San Andrés Mixquic on Nov. 1, 2018. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

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Irving Cabrera Torres

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  • Okay folks, something is WRONG with this gig. Giant dressed-up skeletons, three stories tall, standing in the middle of town? Public murals straight outta Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” TV show? Oh no no, baby.

  • He posts in ignorance to the customs & culture of people different than himself.

    Most of us who are Mexican know that the dead become skeletons as the flesh decays and falls from the bones. In Mexican cemetaries at this time, families return to above ground crypts, respectfully dust off the bones of the ancestors and lovingly replace them in their resting place. There isn’t anything morbid or scarey about our approach to death, it’s simply different to that of your people.

  • Thanks, but I’ve listened to local Mexican supporters of the “Day of the Dead”, explain the event. No problem with them, but they’re heavily sugar-coating what’s going on. The two links in this post, will explain the real deal.

    Meanwhile, we Christians don’t wanna offend anybody. So we duck the Day of the Dead; we let its supporters do ALL the talking, in the public media & public schools. We don’t offer the rest of the story. We want peace — at any price.

    But people of any race & culture, should NOT play with the demon Lady Mictecacihuatl, nor consult or appease dead folks. Christians need to honestly say so, and explain why. Go here. https://www.gotquestions.org/day-of-the-dead.html

    (“Hey, what does Lady M look like?”, you might ask. No problem; she has lots of selfies. Here’s one!)
    http://orig14.deviantart.net/8255/f/2010/348/f/3/mictlantecuhtli_by_dougdougmann-d34vqqs.jpg

  • You jumble together the aspects of everyone in Mexico and other Latin American countries as if we are all the same and our respect for the dead and commemoration of the Dia de Muertos encompasses the same religious/secular beliefs and the reasons for the various customs. That is a falsehood.

    Folks of different religious backgrounds celebrate the occasion with different concepts. For catholics, RC and others, it involves the Roman Catholic idea of “baptizing” local customs & beliefs by integrating them into the church in some form of recognition of All Saints/All Soulls. For the indigenous Mexicans, many of whom still follow the pagan faiths of Mexico, it is very much a pagan commemoration, including the God & Goddess of the realm of the dead.

  • Honestly, nobody’s being jumbled together, nor are people’s “concepts” being ignored. And I do agree with you that the Catholics tried to “baptize” this pagan holiday (but aren’t you trying to sanitize the Day of the Dead just as much?). The problem is that there ARE pagan aspects that this holiday openly displays. Whether you celebrate in Kansas City or Mexico City, this gig traces back to the Aztec demon Mictecacihuatl. And it shows.

    See the flower petals in the RNS photos. Two photos show “cempasuchils” (marigolds), and the third is same or imitation. The caption clearly states the supernatural role of those petals. “The petal path is thought to lead deceased spirits to the home and the offering.” Indeed, there’s a religious altar right there in a house, where the spirits are expected to arrive. Anti-biblical, for sure. And what if you get, umm, party-crashers?

    Anyway, one more inquiry. You see the big mural? Readers, if you saw either or both of those very-clear images coming at you in your dreams, would you call it a nightmare? This is NOT a neutral cultural gig!
    https://www.gotquestions.org/day-of-the-dead.html

  • Yes, yes, yes! For three entire days every year all of Mexico and most of Latin America sells its soul to the devil. We put these altars/ofrendas, not only in our homes, in the cemetaries, but (gasp) in our churches as well. Especially in Roman Catholic churches & cemetaries.

    There are huge parades, from Mexico City down to the smallest villages, with floats and lots & lots of skelatons.There are marigolds everywhere that you look. The marigold industry makes a killing on these three days.

    For the majority of us, it’s myth, metaphor and tradition, all rolled into one giant national holiday. The only holiday in Mexico that is bigger than the Day of the Dead, is 16 SEP, our Independance Day.

  • Indeed, in other places, grave-yard picnics are held on All Saints Day, per our priest, who hales from Eastern Europe. It was John Calvin, who tore down the idea of the Communion of Saints. Prayers for the dead are part of Catholic tradition. Thank Goodness for purgatory!

  • There are three holidays which both trigger objections and raise issues, largely depending on what Christian tradition you are in and where you live: Halloween, Dia de Muertos, and Christmas.

    Christmas, of course, mingles pagan-rooted customs (evergreens, mistletoe, yule logs, and so on) with mangled Christian symbols (particularly Santa Claus) in a mish-mosh such that the Puritans banned it outright and it took England generations to recover many of the traditions.

    Halloween and Dia de Muertos hit many of these same buttons.

    The origins of both are definitely pagan, in the case of Dia de Muertos the meso-American Mayan, Olmecan, Mexican, and Aztec cultures traditions of remembering the deceased, but particularly the Aztec festival.

    https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/indigenous-festivity-dedicated-to-the-dead-00054

    which is a common theme in nearly every culture

    https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/royal-ancestral-ritual-in-the-jongmyo-shrine-and-its-music-00016

    from the ancient Egyptians forward.

    This particular festival was associated with, but not specifically dedicated to, the Azetc goddess Mictecacihuatl in its original form. She “presided” over it in much the same way that Santa Claus “presides” over Christmas but is not the object of the celebration.

    Because of its origin it was celebrated only in southern Mexico where the indigenous people spoke dialects of Nahuatl in their everyday lives, maintained ancient traditions, and were rural rather than urban.

    That changed when the government of Mexico during the 1960s purposely looked for indigenous cultural customs that could be used to unify the southern, central, and northern parts of the country with national traditions.

    Although the festival had already been “baptized” by the Christian missionaries, who made it coincide with the religious festival of “Todos los Santos” (All Saints), and who incorporated Christian symbolism into it at the same time, this altered it into a much secular celebration. For example, just as Thomas Nast transformed the Greek bishop Nicholas into the jolly elf Santa Clause, cartoon illustrator and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada transmogrified Mictecacihuatl into Catrina La Calavera Garbancera as an icon of the Dia de Muertos.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/Posada2.Catrina.jpeg

    Dealing with it requires the same tools as dealing with Halloween or Santa Claus.

    Putting it into the proper context of the Communion of the Saints, and the worthiness of praying for the dead is a first step.

    Dispensing with any pagan origins as superstitions at best is the next step.

    Of course if you come from a culture which already remembers the dead the demythologizing is considerably easier.

  • Thankfully, God tells us about the condition of the dead in his Word, the Bible, through the inspired and written words of wise man, Solomon:

    “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.

    “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy migh: for there is no work, no device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecclestiastes 9:5, 10, King James Version).

    This applies to both righteous and unrighteous humans. However, mankind has the wondrous hope of resurrection from “sleeping in death” back to life on earth (John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15).

    The many healings Jesus performed of those who were blind, lame, diseased, lepers, etc., as well as resurrecting some of the dead (Luke 7:21, 22) were just a preview of the worldwide miraculous healings and resurrections that will take place throughout the upcoming millennial rule (Isaiah 11:1-5) by God’s kingdom, or heavenly government (Matthew 4:17), through its King, Christ Jesus (Isaiah 9:6, 7)!!

    God’s government will first put an end to and replace all human governments (Daniel 2:44).

    Its rule will provide worldwide peace to all (Micah 4:3, 4), as well as finally end all sickness, disease, old age, and even death on earth (Revelation 21:3, 4)!!

  • No problem to mention the Halloween and Christmas issues, but these days it’s at least considered “acceptable” for Christians to openly post and debate about such things. But addressing the DOTD, can cause “frictions”, so Christians duck it.

    By the way, thanks for a good post on general DOTD history.

    But DOTD is NOT the same as our Memorial Day, All Saints Day, or even Halloween. DOTD isn’t about “praying for the dead”, it’s about trying to **contact them**, plus offering lots of free advertising to the Aztec demon of death. (The God-forbidden games witches play on Halloween, parallels this DOTD aspect.) So Christians do have to biblically address the DOTD, for sure.

    At any rate, I appreciate hearing your reply, along with David Allen’s and TiredCatholic’s.

  • You have a bit of your information jumbled.

    The peoples of central Mexico speak Nahuatl, not the people of southern Mexico. (Including the older members of my own family from northeastern Hidalgo.) The indigenous holiday of which you speak was celebrated across central Mexico, Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Proto-Nahuatl came from northern Mexico and southwestern US with the migration south of the Mexica/Aztec people.

    The people of southern Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Guatemala speak dialects of what was originally one proto-Mayan langauge believed to have originated in Guatemala. Proto-Mayan & proto-Nahuatl are not related languages. There are now 30 dialects. The Maya culture didn’t center on human sacrifice as much as the Aztec related cultures did. They mostly sacrificed animals and practiced human blood letting. The Day of the Dead festival in Maya culture was much more tame and didn’t incorporate skeletons and such as the Aztec related versions. The separate cultural customs have been combined into today’s national holiday.

  • For those with an interest, here is the general geographic distribution of the indigenous language groups:

    https://preview.redd.it/99i7li9xbs0z.jpg?width=960&crop=smart&auto=webp&s=454ca471ea8c37183a3148fcac4dd7ccd0dc6fc2

    and the languages grouped:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Mexico

    My nephew in Quintana Roo, who travels into the interior on business, found Spanish to be inadequate and took the time to learn to converse in Màaya t’àan (Yukatek Maya).

  • Thank you for that. As our culture slips back into paganism, you can see continued darkness, violence and cruelty of every kind celebrated in the entertainment industry. Our “Hollywood gods” are really scary. Catholics decry divination — summoning the Dead. They abhor things akin to Santeria. Gangs that kidnap and kill using “mascots,” are despicable. All these demons are Chesterton’s “gods behind the gods.” But when we look to Our Lady of Guadalupe, she stands on the serpent, clothed as an Indian princess, dressed in the robes of one who carries a Child. She is the Queen, not only of Mexico, but of all the Americas. I think this world-wide paganism can be beaten back — under her banner.

  • As Doris Day used to croon way back in the day, and French persons on earth today are known to say, “Que sera, sera, or “what will be, will be.” Jehovah God, and all of his promises, will be vindicated in the end.

  • Are you allowed to listen to music?

    Will you be fulfilling your civic duty as a citizen and voting tomorrow?

  • Yes, I love to listen to music that was popular in the 70’s and 80’s, I still have my record player to enjoy them now (Neil Diamond, the Carpenters, Mac Davis, etc.)

    No. As a theocrat since I was a teenager, I have always “voted” for God’s kingdom as the only hope for the entire human family! So many of the people I know who do vote tell me they are voting for and supporting the “lesser of 2 evils.” My ruler, or King, is Christ Jesus, who is perfect, loving, compassionate, merciful, forgiving, humble, peaceful, meek, and powerful.

    Whatever happens in the political field where I live, I will just have to put up with the final “results.” The government of Russia has banned “freedom of worship” in that country. My brothers and sisters of faith are not allowed to meet together, nor preach, and many have been harmed personally or face imprisonment. They will continue to obey God as ruler rather than man (Acts 5:28, 29).

    Yes, I pay my taxes and obey the laws of Caesar, or man’s governments, as long as they don’t go against God’s laws, principles and commandments.

    As one person of the human family, If my fellowman or neighbor needs help, I will give him/her assistance, no matter their race, culture, or nation. I am not involved in the divisive, prejudicial, unjust, nor nationalistic spirit of human politics, and never will be!!

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