The Day of Death

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Day of the Dead History

This holiday is historically related to Halloween. The Day of the Dead, All Souls' Day, is an official holiday of the Catholic Calendar. All Souls Day is on November 2, following All Saints Day.

The choice of November 2 is traditionally attributed to St. Odilo, the fifth abbot of Cluny (city of France famous for the Abby), because he wanted to follow the example of Cluny in offering special prayers and singing the Office of the Dead on the day following the feast of All Saints. The day was founded to honor all the faithful departed and along with the offerings and the Office of the Dead, there are three Requiem Masses that are said by the clergy to assist the souls from Purgatory to Heaven.

The Aztecs played a very important role in the development of this tradition. The Aztecs had various perceptions of their world. Perceptions as simplistic as a "flat disc" surrounded by water, to a toad floating in a water-lily filled sea. In this world were contained different directions with various associated colors and symbols to each direction and level. One of the most important of these interpretations is that of the terms of a person's death.

The Aztecs believed that after a person died, his/her soul would pass through nine levels prior to their final destination, Mictlan - the place of the dead. They also believed that a person's destiny was founded at birth and that the soul of that person was dependent on the type of death rather than the type of life lead by that person.

Two months of the Aztec calendar were devoted to the dead. The ninth month was dedicated to infants, and the tenth month included a great feast for dead adults. The Spanish Conquest of 1521 brought about the fusion of Catholic attitudes and indigenous beliefs. The Day of the Dead was revealed as a result of amalgamation of Pre-Spanish Indian ritual beliefs and the imposed ritual and dogma of the Catholic church.

Spiritual Significance

The "Day of the Dead " is celebrated by many catholic countries, worldwide. This celebration originated with the Roman Catholic's, and was established in the Catholic calendar as an official holy day. The Catholic religion is based on works, and the theological idea of Purgatory has been accepted as a means of paying for sins, and buying your way into Heaven.

Those believers who died in a "state of grace" were promised "heavenly rewards", after paying for their sins in purgatorial flames, while those who did not die in a "state of grace", were to spend eternity suffering in Hell. Catholics did, however, believe that they could pray their loved ones out of Purgatory. This practice gives us an idea of the spiritual significance of honoring the deceased.


Many customs are associated with The Day of the Dead celebration. In the home an altar is made with an offering of food upon it. It is believed that the dead partake of the food in spirit and the living eat it later.

The "ofrendas"- offerings, are beautifully arranged with flowers, marigolds (zempasuchitl) which are the traditional flower of the dead. There is a candle placed for each dead soul, and they are adorned in some manner. It is also traditional in some areas to go and see the play Don Juan Tenorio. Paper mache and sugar skulls are popular, as are cardboard coffins from which a skeleton can be made to jump out. Special masks are also worn, allowing a person to achieve a facial expression for which they feel they are inadequate to achieve.


Also popular are "calaveras," like an obituary, which are used as placards. Among the prominent people in the government or society, although they are still alive, "Calaveras"--obituaries are published in verse style in the local newspapers. These verses describe the character of the individual and the deeds he/she has done for the community. They all have a jovial or satirical tone.


A popular type of decoration used to commemorate the holiday in Mexico is the tissue banner. The most famous artisans live in the "Mestizo" village of San Salvador Huixcolotla. They have been making banners here for over 90 years. At first the banners were made using scissors, but since the 1940's they have been cut with tiny chisels, "fierritos." Today skilled artisans use more than 50 different chisels to make various cuts in up to 50 sheets of tissue paper at a time.

The traditional patterns in the rural villages included angels, birds, the chalice, and crosses, but never skeletons. The popular pattern in Mexico City represents skeletons in various activities.Traditionally, the colored banners are displayed on October 31, the day the angelitos arrive, at 3 p.m. On November 1, the angelitos depart and the animas arrive. When this occurs the colored banners are removed, and the black and white ones are displayed.


Food is considered indispensable for the celebration. The foods offered in the memorial are different according to the wishes and social status of the deceased. Typical foods include: bread, fruits vegetables, and sweets.

Other delicacies available for the celebration are: sugar skulls (bought from the bakeries with the names of each on of the members of the family who are alive and of the deceased), candied fruit and pumpkins, tamales (corn meal with meat or raising wrapped in corn husk) and maize dough cakes, as well as enchiladas and chalupas (thicker corn tortillas with topings).

Beverages which are placed on the memorial include: water, coffee, beer, tequila, and atole (corn starch fruit flavored hot drink, a special drink made from corn meal.)

Depending on how elaborate the display is, it will show the status of the deadest to the neighbors. While the tradition as stayed mostly the same throughout time, the foods have changed. Today, for instances they honor the dead with beer, enchiladas and chocolate, in ancient times it would more likely have been dogs and turkeys.

One thing has remained constant, and that is the use of bread. The custom of having a loaf of bread relates to the early custom in Spain of begging for souls. Some believe that the Spanish technology of bread-baking and the identical term used in Spain highly suggests that this tradition was Spanish in introduction. It has been written that the Zapotec Indians (State of Oaxaca) listed, bread for the dead, among their death offerings for the departed souls. It is believed that this ritual dates as early as the colonial period of Mexico. In Mexico they have picnic lunches on the graves of their relatives. As this is a day of remembrance, happiness and celebration.They bake bread and make candy in the shape of skull and crossbones, a casket, or a skeleton. The children run through the streets with lanterns and ask for coins. People light bonfires, set off firecrackers, and hang lanterns on trees to guide the souls of the dead home. In Mexico All Saints' Day is devoted to Los angelitos - that is, all the dead children. This is a prelude to November 2's Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, a national holiday on which all the grown-up ghosts will be arriving in full force. The littler ghosts get a head start. To help them find their way back to the homes where they once lived, parents and still-living family members often shoot off firecrackers. In some parts of the country on this night they strew a path of flower petals from the graveyard to the front porch. Mexico's Dia de los Muertos Day of the Dead calls for happy all day picnics beside the graves of dead relatives. At home, people assemble little altars called ofrendas, stocked with the departed loved ones favorite foods and drinks, their photos, and other memories, as well as candles and pungent marigolds, a flower long associated with death. The Mexican custom of Erecting Day of the Dead altars has caught on north of the border, where the altars serve as the focus of ancestor rituals and memorials. In Mexico October 27 is the Feast of the Holy Souls or Fiesta de las Santas Animas, families begin the fiesta by cleaning their relatives' graves and adorning them with pine needles and flowers. The families assemble a temporary altar near the gravesite, stocking the altars with candles and all kinds of foods such as meat, beans, chilies, salt, tortillas, fruit and sometimes alcohol. Each person in the family then takes turns in talking to the departed spirit, offering it the food and assuring it that it is loved. The ceremonies go on for several days, as every family has more than one grave to attend to.

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