The Day of the Dead is widely celebrated in Mexico and neighbouring countries as away to reconnect with dead relatives. A mixture of old, perhaps Aztec beliefs, and Catholicism it’s a time for skull painting, elaborate make-up and a generally good time all round.
In Mexico and parts of South America they celebrate “Dia de Muertos” on 1 and 2 November which coincides with the christian festivals of All Souls or All Saints days.
Christian missionaries often repurposed pagan festivals for their own purposes but the people in these regions still combine older beliefs, which may go back to the Aztec’s Lady of the Dead, who looked after the bones of the deceased, with the catholic church events.
They believe that, starting at midnight on 31 October, the spirits of dead children come through the gates of heaven to be reunited with their families for 24 hours.
This old tradition maintains village life.
When I was in Cancun, Mexico in 1999 I witnessed some of these. In the shopping centre were huge dioramas depicting the events that take place over this festival (these are the pictures used above).
In the Times thus week there was a story about the Day of the Dead and La Calavera Catrina or elegant skull. This was a print by José Guadalupe Postada from the early 20c depicting a woman’s skull with a fancy hat ( satirising poor native Mexicans who adopted aristocratic western dress)before the revolution).
This has since been associated with the festival although the art of sugar skull making with intricate adornments is being replaced by mass-produced versions.
This may sound similar to Halloween as celebrated in Europe and the USA. Halloween is a 3-day festival from All Hallows Eve on the 31st October through to All Souls Day on the 2 November.
This is now a heavily commercialised event and a far cry from apple bobbing and fancy dress with gangs of children marauding for “Trick or Treats”. In my last village we were given signs to put in our windows if we didn’t want to be pestered.
Halloween also has pagan antecedents being linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain which fell on the eve of their New Year which began on November 1st. This was the start of Winter but also the time when the boundary between this world and the spirit world was at its thinnest and spirits could pass over more easily.
Bonfires were lit for protection as departed souls could return to their families for one night to be fed and appeased.
It seems that wherever are we all like a party for whatever reason at this time of year.
It’s been interpreted as an apocalyptic event by some but it merely refers to the end of an era in the Mayan calendar. A long era for sure – a cycle of 5,125 years since the beginning of the Mayan Long Count calendar in 3113 B.C.
The Maya was a Mesoamerican civilization, with the only fully developed written language in the pre-Columbian Americas. It also was famous for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems.
You can still see evidence of this at Chichen Itza, which was only excavated in 1841, where the observatory can still be seen as well as the wonderful building, the Kukulkan pyramid, shown in the picture (which I was lucky to climb in the last year they allowed tourists to do so).
Modern day Mayans live in Mexico and Central America.