The Day of the Dead is a unique Indo-Hispanic holiday that preserves and encourages folk art and folklore as no other holiday does. It is recreated annually in the community, by the community and for the community.
Children in the United States today learn about sex, gunslinging, drug dealing and other forms of corruption much earlier than their parents did (largely through television), but they learn very little about death. In some states the subject is even taboo in public school textbooks. For many, death is therefore an uncongenial intruder who can be dealt with only by calling in the police, the coroner or the mortician.
Does the Indo-Hispanic view of death, which is radically different, imply less regard for the sanctity of life? By no means. The Day of the Dead offers us the opportunity to examine this universal experience in the context of a family tradition, illuminated by the hope of an after-life. In this way, it loses some of its terror and becomes more meaningful, even beautiful.
In the pre-Hispanic cultures of Meso-America, especially the Nahua (Toltec, Aztec, Tlaxcaltec, Chichimec, Tecpanec and others from the Valley of Mexico), life was seen as a dream. Only in dying did a human being truly awake. For a people who lived with human suffering, death offered a release from daily living and the restrictions imposed by other cultures. Death was not feared because it was inevitable.
It is believed that in pre-Hispanic times the dead made the long and often perilous journey through eight underworlds before reaching the region of Mictlán (meek-tlan) ruled over by Mictlantecuhtli (meek-tlan-teh-kooh-tlee), the god of the land of death, and Mictlancuatl (meek-tlan-kwatl), the goddess of the land of death. The dead persons occupation in life and the manner of death determined which afterworld would receive her or him. Warriors who died in combat or on the sacrificial block went to Tonatihilhuac (toh-nah-tee-eel-wahk), the Dwelling place of the Sun. Warriors were honored during the fourteenth month at a festival called Quecholli (kay-chol-lee). This fourteenth month coincides with November on the Julian calendar.
The Spanish conquistadores came from a continent that had been depopulated by plagues during the Middle Ages. They came for gold and land and to establish Christianity in the Americas. They brought with them a new concept of death; the concept of good and bad; the concept of a final judgment day; the concept of heaven, hell and limbo; and the evangelizing process.
During their confrontation with indigenous cultures, the Spanish sensed the power of the celebrations honoring the dead, which were at least 5,000 years old. Realizing that conversion could not obliterate tradition, they permitted certain customs to continue. What eventually developed through this tolerance of the old religion was a fusion of Catholic symbols, beliefs and rituals with those of the conquered and converted people. It is called folk Catholicism. (The large number of Catholic churches in the Americas is a visual testimony to the epoch of Spanish colonialism.
In the ninth century, All Saints Day, November 1, when all saints of the Roman Catholic church are commemorated, became known in England as the Feast of All Hallows. October 31st, the day before, was known as All Hallows Een, a name later shortened to Halloween. Since the thirteenth century, the Catholic churchs All Souls Day, November 2nd, has been designated as a time to pray for the souls of departed baptized Christians believed to be in purgatory.
The annual reunion, on November 1st and 2nd, of the living with the living, and the living with the dead, merges that of All Saints and All Souls Day with Quecholli, the festival to honor warriors. Many Indo-Hispanic people believe that on this day, now known as the Day of the Dead, the deceased are given divine consent to visit with their relatives and friends on earth. November 1st is set aside to honor the souls of children, called los angelitos (little angels). November 2nd is the day adult souls return home.
Beginning in mid-October, children and adults prepare to welcome the souls of their dead relatives, who return at this time each year to make sure all is well and that they have not been forgotten.
Skeletal images leer at passers-by from the windows of bakeries and some business establishments. Banners cut from tissue paper are strung across streets. Special bread of the dead is baked and children are delighted with gifts of whimsical toys and candy skulls that wear their names. The predominating colors for this holiday are black, white, pink, yellow and gold.
At the center of the Day of the Dead observance is an ofrenda (offering) or altar; constructed in the home and/or at the grave site or in business establishments.