Mexico Trek!   guidebook MEXICO GUIDEBOOK: Holidays
The Day of the Dead

This is an ancient festivity that has been much transformed through the years, but which was intended in prehispanic Mexico to celebrate children and the dead. Hence, the best way to describe this Mexican holiday is to say that it is a time when Mexican families remember their dead, and the continuity of life.

The original celebration can be traced to the festivities held during the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontli, ritually presided by the goddess Mictecacihuatl ("Lady of the Dead"), and dedicated to children and the dead. The rituals during this month also featured a festivity dedicated to the major Aztec war deity, Huitzilopochtli ("Sinister Hummingbird").

In the Aztec calendar, this ritual fell roughly at the end of the Gregorian (the calendar we use in the West) month of July and the beginning of August, but in the postconquest era it was moved by Spanish priests so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve (in Spanish: "Día de Todos Santos,") in a fruitless effort to transform this from a "profane" to a Christian celebration. The result is that Mexicans now celebrate the Day of the Dead during the first two days of November, rather than at the beginning of summer, but remember the dead they still do, and the modern festivity is characterized by the traditional Mexican blend of ancient aboriginal and introduced Christian features.

Generalizing broadly, the day's activities consist of visits by families to the graves of their close kin. At the gravesites family members engage in sprucing up the gravesite, decorating it with flowers, setting out and enjoying a picnic, and interacting socially with other family and community members who gather at the cemetery. Families remember the departed by telling stories about them. The meals prepared for these picnics are sumptuous, usually featuring meat dishes in spicy sauces, a special egg-batter bread, cookies, chocolate, and sugary confections in a variety of animal or skull shapes.

Gravesites or family altars are profusely decorated with flowers (primarily large, bright flowers such as marigolds and crysanthemums), and adorned with religious amulets and (in smaller villages) with offerings of food, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. Because of this warm social environment, the colorful setting, and the abundance of food, drink and good company this commemoration of the dead has pleasant overtones for most observers, in spite of the open fatalism exhibited by all participants, whose festive interaction with living and dead in an important social ritual is a way of recognizing the cycle of life and death that is human existance.

The traditional observance calls for a feast during the early morning hours of November the 2nd, the Day of the Dead proper, though modern urban Mexican families usually observe the Day of the Dead with only a special family supper featuring the "Bread of the Dead" (pan de muerto). It is good luck to be the one who bites into the plastic toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each rounded loaf. Friends and family members give one another gifts consisting of sugar skeletons or other items with a death motif, and the gift is more prized if the skull or skeleton is embossed with one's own name.

Two important things to know about the Mexican Day of the Dead are:

  1. It is a holiday with a complex history, and therefore its observance varies quite a bit by region and by degree of urbanization.

  2. It is not a morbid occasion, but rather a festive time.

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Holidays Observed in Mexico City:

Jan. 1: New Year's Day in Mexico City is celebrated by residents with the turning on of every light in the city to welcome the New Year.

Jan. 17: The Feast of St. Anthony is the time that domestic animals are adorned and brought to Church of San Fernando for blessing. January 17.

Feb. 5: Constitution Day, a legal holiday, marks the dates of the 1857 and 1917 charters.

Good Friday: The Enactment of The Passion of Christ observances in the Ixtapalapa section.

May 5: Cinco de Mayo originated in Puebla when the Mexican army successfully defeated the French army when it came to collect an IOU.

July 16: On the Feast Day of Our Lady of Carmen there is a popular fair with side shows and an annual flower show in the San Angel section.

Sept. 15: Mexico's Independence Day celebration starts on the night of September 15th with emotional and patriotic displays in the Zocalo.

Nov. 20: Revolution Day marks the anniversary of the 1910 Revolution and features a huge sports parade.

Dec. 12: The Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, is this country's most important religious holiday. Pilgrims converge from throughout the country at the Guadalupe shrine on top of Tepeyac Hill.

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