By Brooke Gazer
When Hernán Cortés sailed for Mexico, he was seeking fame and fortune, but the priests who followed had a more challenging purpose. They wanted to save souls and gain converts for the Catholic church. Many Aztec rituals, like those surrounding the Death Goddess Mictecacihuatl, appalled them, but these practices were so deeply ingrained that some could be traced back to the Toltec Period (800-1000 CE). In Mexico, as in much of the New World, conversion would require compromises and one technique was merging existing native rituals with Catholic ones. With this in mind, they moved the festival of Mictecacihuatl from July to November, and incorporated Christian concepts.
The notion of rearranging festival dates and focus was not a novel one. In 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV created a day to commemorate holy martyrs. Two hundred years later, Pope Gregory IV moved and expanded it to include all saints. This three day celebration became known in Europe as Allhallowtide – October 31, November 1 and 2.
For traditional Catholics, November 1 is All Saints’ Day; it may also be referred to as Day of the Innocents or Little Angels. Catholics are encouraged to pray for martyrs and saints as well as deceased children, who are assumed to be innocent. November 2 is All Souls’ Day, when Catholics pray for the souls of everyone else, including those who may have gone to Purgatory and are awaiting entry to heaven.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated on the same dates, but in Mexico it bears little resemblance to what Pope Gregory IV originally had in mind. Deceased children are remembered on November 1 and adults on November 2. However, people are not praying for their souls to enter heaven; they are awaiting a reunion. Many traditional Mexicans believe that death is part of a continuing cycle, and that on this hallowed night, the spirits of their ancestors are able to walk among them.
Since the dead return at night, people begin sitting vigil the nights of October 31 and November 1. After dark, Mexican families gather at home in front of ofrendas (altars for the departed), and at the gravesite. They offer favorite foods and beverages while sharing stories about the deceased. It’s a joyful time, about celebrating the life of the person, not mourning their loss. One might compare this to an Irish wake, except that this is an annual event, and the spirits of the deceased are believed to consume the offerings left for them. Believers will tell you that the flavors are altered after the dead have inhaled their essences.
In addition to believing that a loved one may return to enjoy earthly pleasures, Mexicans have continued other indigenous practices. Marigolds, called cempasúchil from the Nahuatl (Aztec), were believed to awaken the dead. Graves and the altars displaying candy, alcohol, favorite foods, and small mementos, are heavily adorned with these distinct orange flowers. On a practical note, it bears mentioning that the pungent fragrance of marigolds repels ants, so that chocolate and other treats are not overrun by these tiny pests. Those ancient priests knew more than we give them credit for.
Candles also play a major role and cemeteries are brightly lit with hundreds of velas as families gather to welcome their loved ones back to earth. Candles are part of Catholic rituals that have merged into this festival and it is believed that the light from the flames helps to guide the spirit home.
If you have an opportunity to visit a cemetery in Mexico during this time, it is an awe-inspiring experience. People are proud of the artistry employed in decorating their loved one’s graves and will welcome you as long as you are respectful. Oaxaca is one of the most traditional states in Mexico, so it stands to reason that this is an excellent place to experience this spectacular celebration of life. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, this might not be the year to visit.
While not all Mexicans celebrate Día de los Muertos, most do – if only to respect their ancestors. It is a lovely ritual, like agnostics decorating a tree and exchanging gifts in December. Adorning a grave or an altar is way to remember loved ones and allowing ourselves to do this is a healthy tradition that we might all benefit from.
This holiday should not be confused with the festival that we call Halloween. Since they share the same origins, the date overlaps, but this is where the similarity ends. During the medieval period in Ireland and Britain, Christians and pagans gathered around bonfires on Allhallowtide to ask for God’s protection from the evil in the world. It became tradition to dress in costumes of saints and demons and act out battles of good vs. evil. Somehow when this antiquated tradition crossed the Atlantic, it was adapted into a frivolous candy fest for children.
Halloween pales in comparison to Mexico’s spectacle, seeming rather crass to those who never grew up with it. For a child, however, the allure of dressing like a kitten or maybe as Superman and filling a sack with free Chiclets, Reese’s Pieces and mini Hershey bars is irresistible. Even as far south as Huatulco, this American/Canadian tradition is creeping into the culture. Each year, I notice more kids roaming our streets and begging for treats. An interesting twist, however, is that in Mexico time has a different perspective, so that local kids have cleverly extended October 31 into a multi-night candy grab.
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa,
an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco.