Day of the Dead – What is celebrated, origin, altar and literary skulls

We explain what the Day of the Dead is in Latin America, its origin and literary skulls. Also, the altar of the dead and their offerings.

day of the Dead
The celebration of the Day of the Dead is part of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

What is the day of the deads?

The Day of the Dead is a typical Mexican celebration and of other regions of Latin America (such as Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Guatemala), in which worshiped deceased relatives and death itself, through various rites such as colorful decorations, costumes, a special gastronomy and certain forms of recitation.

The cultural richness of this tradition is such that Unesco considered it a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity as of 2008. It is celebrated on November 1 and 2 of each year.

The Day of the Dead is one of the most famous and visited traditions in Mexico, inspiring numerous works of fiction and starring in documentary records. Its basic concept It is a short night meeting of the people with their deceased relatives, to eat, drink and celebrate.

This tradition is a perfect example of cultural syncretism, given that it is a complex mix of pre-Columbian roots and Hispanic Catholic influence, and is related in different ways to All Saints Day (November 1) and Los Dia de los Santos. Faithful Dead (November 2), typical of Christian churches. However, these three different celebrations should not be confused.

Origin of the Day of the Dead

The exact origin of the Day of the Dead is a source of controversy and debate. It is estimated that has firm pre-Columbian roots, dating back some 3,000 years to Mesoamerican civilization and especially to the Nahua peoples, whose cyclical vision of the universe included death as an indispensable part of existence.

For them death was, in fact, stripped of the moral connotations of medieval Christianity, and there is ample evidence of the rites celebrated in ancient Teotihuacán and in the Mexica Empire as part of a permanent cult of the deceased. whose task was to guide the deceased on their journey through the different kingdoms beyond the grave.

However, there are those who highlight the European roots of this celebration, establishing links with the rites in honor of the deceased of the Catholic Church in Italy and Spain, and that they would have been implanted in Vice-royal Mexico under Spanish colonization.

According to this point of view, Mexican society would have conveniently ignored the percentage of European heritage of this holiday during its long period of revolutionary nationalism in the early twentieth century, in order to downplay the Catholic Church in the popular imagination.

It is also probable that this rite belongs to the Mexican pre-Columbian heritage and has been substantially modified during the centuries of colonization, being what we know today is the direct result of this process of cultural hybridization.

Altar of the dead

day of the dead altar
Each of the levels of the altar represents some religious aspect.

The altar of the dead is one of the most common decorations of the Mexican Day of the Dead, which consists of the installation of colorful domestic altars in which the deceased members of the family are honored, and tribute is offered in the form of candles, food, drink, flowers and objects of daily use of each deceased.

These altars show the cultural fusion typical of this celebration, combining the Nahua tlamanalli (“offerings”) with the ornamentation of the Catholic religious altar.

These altars often reflect a complex view of the material and immaterial world, through not only his offerings to the deceased, but also a variable number of levels of the altar, ranging from 1 to 3 levels to huge 7-level altars.

Each of the levels represents some religious aspect, such as the Holy Trinity or the Seven Deadly Sins, and at the same time the different worlds of the dead available to the recently deceased soul in the local pre-Columbian tradition.

Day of the Dead Offerings

day of the dead offerings
Portraits of deceased relatives are usually included on the altars.

Among the most common offerings made to the deceased during the Day of the Dead are:

  • Flower crown, especially sunflowers, roses and cempasúchitl (“velvet flower” in Nahuatl). With them the tombs are usually decorated directly, or placed on the altars of the dead.
  • Bread of the dead, a type of sweet bread with anise, baked in different shapes, whether round, bone or skull, on which sugar is sprinkled, in a similar way to the Spanish “bones of the dead”.
  • Alfeñique skulls, sweet candies made with sugar, chocolate, amaranth, vanilla and other substances, in which the names of living relatives are usually written.
  • Personal belongings of the deceased, ranging from everyday implements to portraits and clothing.
  • Pumpkins in tacha, that is, pumpkin candied with honey or panela, and whose crystallized sweet is called pumpkin.
  • Incense and copal, the latter being a certain type of aromatic plant resins, intermediate between resin and amber.
  • Crosses made of salt, ash, earth or lime, on top of the altars and often next to the portrait of the deceased honored.
  • Homemade food, alcoholic beverages, water.

Day of the Dead literary skulls

The literary skulls they are a type of rhymed poetic composition, of popular and traditional origin, which in Mexico are composed on the eve of the Day of the Dead.

They are generally written as epitaphs, in which certain living people are portrayed in a satirical or humorous way, accompanied by drawings of skulls, especially of the Catrina (death) or the Calavera Garbancera, a figure created by the cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913).

The literary skulls come from the 19th century, and were published for the first time in 1879, in the newspaper The Socialist, from Guadalajara. In their time they were often censored, since they served as an instrument of protest by expressing satirical content that made fun of the powerful.