Days Of The Dead Title

Days of the Dead

Days of the Dead is a week-long holiday when the souls of the dead return to be with their families for one night. That night is November 1 and the early morning of November 2. Like so many other elements of Mexico's culture, this holiday is a mixture of Prehispanic and Christian religious ideas. In the Catholic religious calendar these are All Souls' Day and All Saints' Day and in Europe they were set aside for remembrance of departed family members. Certain indigenous peoples, such as the Aztecs also had religious rites having to do with death and the return of spirits to this world. Many of these were bloody, demanding human sacrifice. But the victims spirits lived on and their bones were said to be like seeds of corn from which would spring renewed life. The blood, like the heavenly rains, watered the parched earth. Although all the ancient rituals have disappeared, some of their spirit threads through the ages down to the present.
A priest says mass in Actalán's graveyard on the night of the Day of the Dead.

Graves specially decorated for Days of the Dead.


The graveyard on morning after the all night festivities.

Wedding Carrage

A satirical vision of a wedding party.

The celebration is not sad and dreary, but cheerful. People are happy to think that the person they loved will return to be with them and enjoy the pleasures of life with their family. It is also said that death in traditional Mexican culture does not have the same meaning as it does among North Americans and Europeans. Mexicans joke about death and poke fun at it in their art, literature, and music. That's one reason why toys and candies made in the shapes of skulls and skeletons are so common in this season. Death is feared and paid due respect, but it is thought to be an inevitable part of the natural cycle, a phenomenon as logical and natural as life itself. And like all of life itself, death is filled with ironies, not the least of which is that the dead are never really dead but return for this one night of the year.


Ofrendas, or altars is another reconstructed Mexican tradition. Like the art, it is a merger of ancient Prehispanic offerings to ancestral spirits and Spanish religious practices. Ofrendas are set up in people's homes to honor the spirit of someone dear who has recently died. The ofrenda is loaded with the things he or she loved in life because on the night of November 1-2 the spirits of the ancestors return to partake of them. In the words of the celebrated Mexican writer and interpreter of Mexican culture, Elena Poniatowska:

An elaborate ofrenda in a home.

"The offering consists of corn, a sacred plant that assures the continuity of life. If the dead was fond of beer, then a dozen bottles of beer are lined up on the altar. There are Coca-Cola altars, Bacardi Rum altars, the luxury of death has no limits: altars of cut-pattern violet tissue paper where the dead can see his photograph sitting among candles, his rifle and his hat, his cartridge belts and his belly band, his dog-if it didn't die of sadness-candy fruit, water to scare away the bad spirits, beans, black mole sauce from Oaxaca, or mole poblano, to his individual taste, casseroles of rice, or tejocotes in syrup, ate candy, fruits, coconuts from the tropic, appetizers: enchiladas, covered with white dry cheese, onion and cilantro, tacos rolled up very neatly, hot pepper sauce, lard, tortillas, tostadas de pata, totopos, marquesotes, and tamales, because the body has its reasons".

Ofrendas are also public art. They appear in all kinds of public spaces, from city halls, to museums and shop windows. Most of these have traditional elements such as flowers and food, but they also have lots of political and social satire. In North America colorful ofrendas have become popular not only in Mexican-American communities but also in schools and other public places.

Content by: Food For Thought Productions, (Chicago) Inc. © 1999