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Day of The Dead

DAY OF THE DEAD

DAY OF THE DEAD. In Mexico, the festival of Día de los Muertos embodies the greatest expression of both popular Catholicism and the national cuisine. People construct altars in homes and graveyards throughout the country in order to feed the souls of the dead. Church officials recognize two holy days, November 1 (All Saints' Day), in commemoration of saints and martyrs, and November 2 (All Souls' Day), in memory of the faithful departed. According to popular belief, the angelitos (deceased children) return on the evening of October 31 and the adults on the following night, although the dates in local celebrations vary all the way from October 28 to November 4. The feast for the dead originated as a form of ancestor worship, and the clergy were long reluctant to incorporate such pagan practices into the liturgical calendar. The festival held particularly strong associations with pre-Hispanic agrarian cults because it coincided with the maize harvest.

Celebrations begin with the cleaning of the graves and the construction of the ofrenda, or altar. At home this consists of a table or platform hung from the ceiling, covered with a white cloth and supporting an arch of palm fronds. The ofrenda are decorated with flowers, particularly the cempasúchil (marigold), the "flower of the dead," as well as the magenta-colored cockscomb, a white gypsophila, gladioli, and carnations. The same flowers are also used to decorate tombs, and the sweet smell of copal, the Native American incense, is ubiquitous. Other altar decorations include images of the deceased as well as papeles picados, colored paper with cutout designs.

The foods offered to the dead vary according to age and taste, but bread, water, and salt are always included. The bread is made from a special egg dough in a round shape, with crisscrossed strips of dough forming bones, and a skull in the center. Sugar candies with similar skull and calavera (skeleton) designs are also popular. In some areas of Oaxaca and Michoacán, bakers shape the bread to resemble humans or animals. Offerings for children are miniature in size and relatively simple: breads, candies, fruits, and milk or soft drinks. The adult dead receive the finest foods, grown-up breads and sugar figures, as well as candied pumpkin and other sweets. More elaborate preparations include mole (turkey in a rich chili sauce) and tamales (corn dumplings stuffed with meat and chili and steamed in husks or banana leaves). The spirits also drink their favorite beverages, whether soft drinks, coffee, chocolate, beer, or tequila. Some people maintain that the level of the liquid decreases overnight, showing that the dead do indeed return to share in the feast.

The Day of the Dead has recently become an important tourist attraction for towns such as Mixquic, near Mexico City, and in the state of Oaxaca. Yet despite this increasing commercialization, the festival exemplifies the distinctiveness of the Mexican mentality; rather than a time of trick or treat, it celebrates the intimate connections between the living and the dead.

See also Christianity; Death and Burial; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Halloween; Holidays; Mexico; Religion and Food.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barnés de Castro, Francisco, et al. Ofrenda de muertos. Mexico, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1998.

Carmichael, Elizabeth, and Chloë Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. London: British Museum Press, 1991.

Garcíagodoy, Juanita. Digging the Days of the Dead: A Reading of Mexico's Días de muertos. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1998.

Nutini, Hugo. Todos Santos in Rural Tlaxcala: A Syncretic, Espressive, and Symbolic Analysis of the Cult of the Dead. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Ríos, Guadalupe, et al. Día de muertos: La Celebración de la fiesta del 2 de noviembre en la segunda mitad del siglo XIX. Mexico, D.F.: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 1995.

Verti, Sebastián. Tradiciones mexicanas. Mexico: Editorial Diana, 1991.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher

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Days of the Dead

Days of the Dead

Days of the Dead, a religious observation celebrated throughout Mexico on November 2, honors the memories of departed family members. The farther south one travels in Mexico, the more elaborate the celebration becomes. It is mainly in southern and central areas where Mexicans decorate their panteones (cemeteries) and the nearby streets with vivid imagery of death, usually skeletons and skulls. Families make altars in their homes, where the photos of departed souls are prominently placed alongside religious icons, ofrendas (offerings) of food such as pan de muertos baked in shapes of skulls and figures, and yellow marigolds, the symbol of death. On the eve of November 2, All Saints Day, some families spend the night at the cemetery in a velada (wake), lighting candles and making offerings at the tombs of their loved ones.

Some communities organize a desfile (parade) with participants dressed up as ghouls, ghosts, mummies, and skeletons carrying an open coffin with an animated corpse played by a villager. The skeletal representations are given feminine nicknames such as la calaca (the skeleton), la pelona (baldy), la flaca (skinny), and la huesada (bony). This most likely originates in the pre-European practice of assigning a female characteristic to the deity overseeing death. The Aztecs called this goddess Mictecacihuatl.

The traveler in the northern or urban areas of Mexico will find no such colorful observances. While El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is marked in these regions, the activities are usually more sedate, consisting of placing marigolds at the tombs or either cleaning or refurbishing these resting places. But even here, a festive air surrounds the cemeteries as vendors peddle food, flowers, and religious relics.

There is no doubt that Mexicans demonstrate a unique devotion to a day that all Christians in varying degrees observe. The reasons for this are varied. In areas that retain a vibrant indigenous tradition, this Christian religious holiday is a part of a syncretic process, a blend of pre-Columbian beliefs in the return of the ancestors to their villages and the Christian belief that only the flesh decays but not the soul.

During the Days of the Dead, Mexicans deploy mockery and fraternization to openly confront and accept the inevitability of death that is so feared and hidden in modern Western culture. Considering that contemporary and past pre-industrial cultures deal with death in a similar fashionthere are examples in India, Asia, or Africasuch conviviality in the face of death is a lively tradition in a country where the modern competes with a vigorous traditional past.

In the late nineteenth century, Chicanos and other Americans in the United States have taken to celebrating Days of the Dead with much fanfare. While these projects incorporate the most colorful and interesting features from Mexico, they are usually bereft of the religious dimension of authentic Mexican rites. Interestingly, in the San Francisco Bay area, the homosexual community has taken on this day of observation as a method of coping with the AIDS epidemic.

See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Communication with the Dead; Ghosts; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Bibliography

Greenleigh, John. The Days of the Dead: Mexico's Festival of Communion with the Departed. San Francisco: Collins Publishers, 1991.

Hoyt-Goldsmith, Diane. Day of the Dead: A Mexican-American Celebration. New York: Holiday House, 1994.

Luenn, Nancy. A Gift for Abuelita: Celebrating the Day of the Dead. Flagstaff, AZ: Rising Moon, 1998.

F. ARTURO ROSALES

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"Days of the Dead." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a popular holiday celebrated throughout Latin American countries. In Mexico it has become a major annual event anticipated several weeks before the actual celebration, with massive altars covered with offerings to deceased loved ones. Though now tied to the Roman Catholic feast days of All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (October 31-November 2), the Day of the Dead is rooted in the observances followed by Native Americans for centuries prior to the Spanish conquests. As with the Neo-Pagan celebration of Halloween, the Day of the Dead is seen as a time in which the spirits of the departed are seen as especially close and communication is possible. It is a time of remembrance, and the sorrow of the departure of loved ones is caught up in a celebration of the continuance of life.

In the belief system underlying the celebration, there are three possible resting places for the departed, one less desirable place called Mictlan and two more desirable. The final resting place is determined by the quality and number of acts committed in this life that were pleasing to the gods. At the time of death, the deceased is given a send-off that will assist in negotiating the passages to his/her final resting place. On the Day of the Dead, the home and/or graveyard is lit with candles, strong incense is burned, and loud music is played as part of the observance to assist the souls in finding their way back from their resting place to join in the celebration.

As Halloween has become one of the most observed holidays in North America (second only to Christmas in the number of homes decorated), so the Day of the Dead is widely observed from Ecuador to Mexico and southern California. Typical decorations include food offerings and cempazuchitl flower arrangements consisting of marigolds and candles. Food substances typically include chocolate, fruits, tamales, taquila, and mascal. Included in the decoration may be a set of marzipan skulls (bread shaped like a skull) surrounding the picture of a loved one especially remembered, or the pan de muerto, loaves of bread sometimes in the shape of the human body, topped with a crossed bone design. The decorations set the stage for a massive party in which music is played, food eaten, and drinks designed appropriately to alter one's consciousness consumed.

Evidence of a celebratory period of acknowledgment of the deceased at the end of the harvest season has been found by archeologists in many pre-Columbian sites, especially in Mexico and Central America. Following the Spanish conquest and the establishment of Catholicism as the state religion, this period of acknowledgement was incorporated into All Saints' day and All Souls' Day, which conveniently coincided with the period, and emerged as the Day of the Dead. In Mexican culture it includes a belief in the unity of death and life.

Sources:

Carmichael, Elizabeth. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Gonzalez-Crussi, Frank. The Day of the Dead: And Other Moral Reflections. San Diego: Harcourt-Brace, 1994.

Harrington, Kent. Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead. Tucson, Ariz.: Dennis McMillan Publications, 1997.

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"Day of the Dead." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead, Span. Día de los Muertos, annual festival in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, commonly on November 1st and 2d. Its ancient Mesoamerican roots now augmented by Christian custom, it celebrates the dead with joy and humor rather than mourning, and coincides with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Family graves are cleaned and decorated, and home altars (ofrendas) are embellished with offerings, e.g., candles, photos, foods, flowers. Special holiday breads and sugar skulls are baked and consumed, and charmingly colorful folk-art skeletons engaged in a variety of everyday activities commemorate the day.

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"Day of the Dead." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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