Celebrating the Day of the Dead

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The Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. Photo: Anne Hand

By Marcela Buzo

Every year on the 1st of November, Mexican mausoleums fill up with flowers, candles, food, tequila, and music. A place as solemn as a cemetery brims with festivity and happiness. The reason? The Day of the Dead, when the living celebrate death and where, for a moment, the deceased return to be with their loved ones and share once more the food and drinks that they so liked during life.

The roots of this tradition date back to the merging of indigenous and european cultures in Mexico. Though the tradition coincides with the Catholic celebration called “All Saints Day,” the indigenous people combined it with their own tradition of honoring their deceased loved ones. This cultural mixture is the origin of the Day of the Dead we know now.

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A Day of the Dead altar at the parade in Mexico City. Photo: Anne Hand

Popular belief says the souls of the dead return the 1st and 2nd of November. The doors of the sky open so the dead can enjoy the offerings and altars mortals prepare to honor them. The altars are decorated with candles, cempasúcil flowers—a yellow flower that evokes the sun, and which the Aztecs believed guides the souls of the dead—,fruit, photographs, and paper decorations. People leave toys and caramels for deceased children and cigars for older souls. Painted and candy skulls are the final touch on the altar decorations.

Without a doubt, this is a tradition that draws attention from the entire world. The main reason is that, in addition to the Mexican folklore that adorns the day, the day is about celebrating the dead with happiness and joy, rather than regret and suffering. It’s also a day to make fun of death. An example of this is the “literary skulls” that contain rhymes that satirize popular people and situations using death as a comedic foil, in the spirit of the popular saying, “el muerto al cajón y el vivo al fiestón” (which roughly translates to “send the dead to their drawers, and the living to their parties”). I leave you with a rhyme about Hispanics in Philanthropy, in its original Spanish (it doesn’t translate prettily, trust me!):

“En las oficinas de Hispanics in Philanthropy
Estaba la muerte paseando,
Con su andar lento y pausado
Estaba la muerte observando
Pues quiere llevar en su baraca
A todos los que no trabajan”.

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Day of the Dead cruisers at the Mexico City parade. Photo: Anne Hand