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Mexico

28 October 2020

Día de Muertos

Mexico: Día de Muertos, 28 October 2020. Images from private collection and Servicio Postal Mexicanos Filatelia

Technical Specifications:

Name: Mexican Traditions, Day of the Dead
Price: $ 13.50 Pesos $ 0.70 USD
Issue Date: 10/28/2020
Paper: Matte white couché, self-adhesive 110 g / m2
Designer: Nancy Torres López
Size: 72 x 30 mm
Colors: Multicolor
Perforation: Rouletted
Printing: Offset lithography
Gum: Self-adhesive
Print run: 100,008

The Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos or Día de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrated in Mexico and elsewhere associated with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. The multi-day holiday involves family and friends gathering to pray for and to remember friends and family members who have died. It is commonly portrayed as a day of celebration rather than mourning. Mexican academics are divided on whether the festivity has indigenous pre-Hispanic roots or whether it is a 20th-century rebranded version of a Spanish tradition developed by the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas to encourage Mexican nationalism through an “Aztec” identity. The festivity has become a national symbol and as such is taught in the nation’s school system, typically asserting a native origin. In 2008, the tradition was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

The holiday is sometimes called “Día de los Muertos” in Anglophone countries. Whereas in Spain and most of Latin America the public holiday and similar traditions are typically held on All Saints’ Day (Todos los Santos), the Mexican government under Cárdenas switched the festivity to All Souls’ Day (Fieles Difuntos) in an effort to secularize the festivity and distinguish it from the Hispanic Catholic festival.

Dia de Muertos was then promoted throughout the country as a continuity of ancient Aztec festivals celebrating death, a theory strongly encouraged by Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Traditions connected with the holiday include building home altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using calaveras, Aztec marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. Visitors also leave possessions of the deceased at the graves.

Origin and History

Día de Muertos altar commemorating a deceased man in Milpa Alta, Mexico City. Photograph taken on 1 November 2009.

Dia de Muertos is commonly associated with Mexican pre-Hispanic indigenous traditions both in Mexico and abroad. However, over the past decades, Mexican academia has increasingly questioned the validity of this assumption, even going as far as calling it a politically-motivated fabrication. Historian Elsa Malvido, researcher for the Mexican INAH and founder of the institute’s Taller de Estudios sobre la Muerte, was the first to do so in the context of her wider research into Mexican attitudes to death and disease across the centuries. Malvido completely discards a native or even syncretic origin arguing that the tradition can be fully traced to Medieval Europe. She highlights the existence of similar traditions on the same day, not just in Spain, but in the rest of Catholic Southern Europe and Latin America such as altars for the dead, sweets in the shape of skulls and bread in the shape of bones.

Agustin Sanchez Gonzalez has a similar view in his article published in the INAH’s bi-monthly journal Arqueología Mexicana. Gonzalez states that, even though the “indigenous” narrative became hegemonic, the spirit of the festivity has far more in common with European traditions of Danse macabre and their allegories of life and death personified in the human skeleton to remind us the ephemeral nature of life. He also highlights that in the 19th century press there was little mention of the Day of the Dead in the sense that we know it today. All there was were long processions to cemeteries, sometimes ending with drunkenness. Elsa Malvido, also points to the recent origin of the tradition of “velar” or staying up all night with the dead. It resulted from the Reform Laws under the presidency of Benito Juarez which forced family pantheons out of Churches and into civil cemeteries, requiring rich families having servants guarding family possessions displayed at altars.

Gonzalez further explains that the modern characteristics of the “Dia de Muertos” during the first governments following the Mexican revolution led to a nationalist culture and iconography based on pride for everything indigenous – portraying Native Americans as the origin of everything truly Mexican.

The historian Ricardo Pérez Montfort has further demonstrated how the ideology known as indigenismo became more and more closely linked to post-revolutionary official projects whereas Hispanismo was identified with conservative political stances. This exclusive nationalism began to displace all other cultural perspectives to the point that in the 1930s, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl was officially promoted by the government as a substitute for the Spanish Three Kings tradition, with a person dressed up as the deity offering gifts to poor children.

This image represents the Catrina, a female character representing the dead created by Guadalupe Posadas. Cempasúchil, alfeñiques and papel picado used to decorate the altar. Photograph taken on 29 October 2015.

In this context, the Day of the Dead began to be officially isolated from the Catholic Church by the leftist government of Lázaro Cárdenas motivated both by “indigenismo” and left-leaning anti-clericalism. Malvido herself goes as far as calling the festivity a “Cardenist invention” whereby the Catholic elements are removed and emphasis is laid on indigenous iconography, the focus on death and what Malvido considers to be the cultural invention according to which Mexicans venerate death. Sanchez explains that Mexican nationalism developed diverse cultural expressions with a seal of tradition but which are essentially social constructs which eventually developed ancestral tones. One of the these would be the Catholic Día de Muertos which, during the 20th century, appropriated the elements of an ancient pagan rite.

One key element of the re-developed festivity which appears during this time is La Calavera Catrina by Mexican lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. According to Gonzalez, whereas Posada is portrayed in current times as the “restorer” of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic tradition he was never interested in Native American culture or history. Posada was predominantly interested in drawing scary images which are far closer to those of the European renaissance or the horrors painted by Francisco de Goya in the Spanish war of Independence against Napoleon than the Mexica tzompantli. The recent transatlantic connection can also be observed in the pervasive use of couplet in allegories of death and the play Don Juan Tenorio by 19th Spanish writer José Zorrilla which is represented on this date both in Spain and in Mexico since the early 19th century due to its ghostly apparitions and cemetery scenes.

Altars (ofrendas)

It is traditional to have three levels on the ofrenda, one on top of the other. The top level typically contains a crucifix or a painting of Jesus Christ or other similar devotional image. There are typically four elements present on an ofrenda, air, water, earth, and fire. The air is fulfilled by what is called “papel picado” or “cut paper”. This is paper that has been cut into festive designs, then hung above or within the ofrenda. These are typically colorful and festive. Water is typically placed on the ofrenda, along with salt. Fire is often fulfilled using candles, typically one for each honored loved one. This is not all that is typical on the ofrenda, however: there are also flowers, typically marigolds (Cempasuchitl) and sugar skulls and pan de muerto (bread of the dead). Also on these ofrendas are articles of clothing of the deceased, such as a shawl or a hat. For children small toys are typically offered.

People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.

Plans for the day are made throughout the year, including gathering the goods to be offered to the dead. During the three-day period families usually clean and decorate graves; most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with ofrendas (altars), which often include orange Mexican marigolds (Tagetes erecta) called cempasúchil (originally named cempōhualxōchitl, Nāhuatl for ‘twenty flowers’). In modern Mexico the marigold is sometimes called Flor de Muerto (‘Flower of Dead’). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings. It is also believed the bright petals with a strong scent can guide the souls from cemeteries to their family homes.

Toys are brought for dead children (los angelitos, or ‘the little angels’), and bottles of tequila, mezcal or pulque or jars of atole for adults. Families will also offer trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave. Some families have ofrendas in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (‘bread of dead’), and sugar skulls; and beverages such as atole. The ofrendas are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the “spiritual essence” of the ofrendas‘ food, so though the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In many places, people have picnics at the grave site, as well.

Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes; these sometimes feature a Christian cross, statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other people, scores of candles, and an ofrenda. Traditionally, families spend some time around the altar, praying and telling anecdotes about the deceased. In some locations, celebrants wear shells on their clothing, so when they dance, the noise will wake up the dead; some will also dress up as the deceased.

Mexican family tidying and decorating gravesites for Dia de Muertos at a cemetary in Almoloya del Rio, State of Mexico, Mexico. Photograph taken on 2 November 1995.

Food

During Day of the Dead festivities, food is both eaten by living people and given to the spirits of their departed ancestors as ofrendas (‘offerings’). Tamales are one of the most common dishes prepared for this day for both purposes.

Pan de muerto and calaveras are associated specifically with Day of the Dead. Pan de muerto is a type of sweet roll shaped like a bun, topped with sugar, and often decorated with bone-shaped pieces of the same pastry. Calaveras, or sugar skulls, display colorful designs to represent the vitality and individual personality of the departed.

In addition to food, drink is also important to the tradition of Día de Muertos. Historically, the main alcoholic drink was pulque while today families will commonly drink the favorite beverage of their deceased ancestors. Other drinks associated with the holiday are atole and champurrado, warm, thick, non-alcoholic masa drinks.

Jamaican iced tea is a popular herbal tea made of the flowers and leaves of the Jamaican hibiscus plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa), known as flor de Jamaica in Mexico. It is served cold and quite sweet with a lot of ice. The ruby-red beverage is called hibiscus tea in English-speaking countries and called agua de Jamaica (water of hibiscus) in Spanish.

Calaveras

Those with a distinctive talent for writing sometimes create short poems, called calaveras literarias (skulls literature), mocking epitaphs of friends, describing interesting habits and attitudes or funny anecdotes. This custom originated in the 18th or 19th century after a newspaper published a poem narrating a dream of a cemetery in the future, “and all of us were dead”, proceeding to read the tombstones. Newspapers dedicate calaveras to public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of the famous calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator. Theatrical presentations of Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla (1817–1893) are also traditional on this day.

Calavera de la Catrina (Skull of the Female Dandy), from the portfolio 36 Grabados: José Guadalupe Posada, published by Arsacio Vanegas, Mexico City, c. 1910, zinc etching, 34.5 x 23 cm.

Posada created what might be his most famous print, he called the print La Calavera Catrina (“The Elegant Skull”) as a parody of a Mexican upper-class female. Posada’s intent with the image was to ridicule the others that would claim the culture of the Europeans over the culture of the indigenous people. The image was a skeleton with a big floppy hat decorated with 2 big feathers and multiple flowers on the top of the hat. Posada’s striking image of a costumed female with a skeleton face has become associated with the Day of the Dead, and Catrina figures often are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead observances.

A common symbol of the holiday is the skull (calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (colloquial term for skeleton), and foods such as sugar or chocolate skulls, which are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead. Sugar skulls can be given as gifts to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes from plain rounds to skulls, often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.

Local Traditions

The traditions and activities that take place in celebration of Día de Muertos are not universal, often varying from town to town. For example, in the town of Pátzcuaro on the Lago de Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, the tradition is very different if the deceased is a child rather than an adult. On November 1 of the year after a child’s death, the godparents set a table in the parents’ home with sweets, fruits, pan de muerto, a cross, a rosary (used to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for them) and candles. This is meant to celebrate the child’s life, in respect and appreciation for the parents. There is also dancing with colorful costumes, often with skull-shaped masks and devil masks in the plaza or garden of the town. At midnight on November 2, the people light candles and ride winged boats called mariposas (butterflies) to Janitzio, an island in the middle of the lake where there is a cemetery, to honor and celebrate the lives of the dead there.

Mexican cempasúchil (marigold) is the traditional flower used to honor the dead.

In contrast, the town of Ocotepec, north of Cuernavaca in the State of Morelos, opens its doors to visitors in exchange for veladoras (small wax candles) to show respect for the recently deceased. In return the visitors receive tamales and atole. This is done only by the owners of the house where someone in the household has died in the previous year. Many people of the surrounding areas arrive early to eat for free and enjoy the elaborate altars set up to receive the visitors.

In some parts of the country (especially the cities, where in recent years other customs have been displaced) children in costumes roam the streets, knocking on people’s doors for a calaverita, a small gift of candies or money; they also ask passersby for it. This relatively recent custom is similar to that of Halloween’s trick-or-treating in the United States. Another peculiar tradition involving children is La Danza de los Viejitos (the Dance of the Old Men) when boys and young men dressed like grandfathers crouch and jump in an energetic dance.

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