Origins D is for Día de los Muertos: The Day of the Dead by Lilitu Babalon Día de los Muertos or Day

of the Dead is an ancient Mexican celebration which has been much transformed through the years. In pre-Hispanic Mexico it was a celebration of both children and the dead and has a complex history. In contemporary Mexico, the celebrations differ widely, depending on the region and the degree or urbanization, and despite its name, Día de los Muertos is definitely a celebration rather than a time of mourning. Before Christianisation, rituals celebrating the lives of dead ancestors had been performed by Mesoamerican civilizations for at least 3,000 years. It was common practice to keep skulls as trophies and display them during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. The original celebrations can be traced to many Mesoamerican native traditions such as those held during the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontli, ritually presided by the Lady of the Dead, Mictecacihuatl, and dedicated to children and the dead. In the Aztec calendar, this ritual fell roughly at the end of the Gregorian month of July and the beginning of August, but in the post-conquest era it was moved by Spanish priests so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve (in Spanish: Día de Todos Santos.) This was an effort to transform the observance from a pagan to a Christian celebration. Mexicans now celebrate Día de los Muertos during the first two days of November rather than in the northern hemisphere summer and the modern festivities are characterised by a combination of ancient and traditional practices and elements of Catholicism such as crosses, pictures of saints, or figures of the Virgin Mary being placed on altars. The souls of deceased children are believed to arrive on November 1st, with adult spirits following the next day. Two of the main elements of contemporary celebrations are the welcoming of the dead back into their homes, and visiting their graves. At the cemetery, families will decorate the grave site with flowers, and picnic and socialize with other families gathered there. The celebrants believe that the souls of the dead are all around them and will come back to visit. Stories are told of the dead and the picnics are sumptuous and elaborate, and include sugary sweets in a variety of animal and skull shapes. As well as gravesites, altars are profusely decorated with flowers, usually marigolds and chrysanthemums and scattered with religious amulets, offerings of food, cigarettes, cigars and alcohol. This important social interaction by all participants, the living and the dead, is an important social ritual which recognizes the cycle of life and death which is human existence. Inside the homes, families decorate altars that they feel reflect the ancestors and will place upon them items that the deceased would find attractive. For example,

if a dead relative enjoyed playing golf, they might include golf balls and clubs, or a figure of a golfer. They also place items that remind the living of the departed such as photographs, items of clothing, foods they enjoyed during life, and things they prized while still living. They hope to encourage the dead to return every year and take part in the remembrance. The altar also includes four main elements — earth, wind, water, and fire. Earth is represented by a crop: Mexicans believe the souls are fed by the aroma of food. Wind is represented by a moving object and tissue paper is commonly used. Water is placed on the altar for the soul to quench its thirst after the long journey to the altar. Fire is represented by a wax candle: each lit candle represents a soul, and an extra one is placed for the forgotten soul. The more urban the setting, the less religious and cultural importance is placed on the celebration, while the more rural and indigenous the locality, the greater the ritualistic and religious are the celebrations. In Mexico City, some families simply celebrate Día de los Muertos with a family meal, while others may have more elaborate celebrations. On the island of Janitzio in Michoacan state, Día de los Muertos is a religious observance featuring actual worship of the dead. Cuilapan, Oaxaca, an ancient capital of the Zapotec people, who venerated their ancestors and whose descendants do so to this day, is an example of a region where many traditional practices still survive. A practice found in the state of Oaxaca is for bread to be molded into the shape of a body or burial wrap, and for a face to be embedded on one end of the loaf. During the days leading up to and following the festivity, some bakeries in heavily aboriginal communities cease producing the wide range of breads that they typically sell so that they can focus on satisfying the demand for bread of the dead, pan de muerto. In southern Mexico, in the city of Puebla, it is good luck to be the one who bites into the toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each rounded loaf. Friends and family members give one another gifts consisting of sugar skeletons or other items with a death motif, and the gift is more prized if the skull or skeleton is embossed with one's own name. In the area of Tlahuac, the small town of Mixquic holds one of the most outstanding and emotional celebrations for the Day of the Dead. Preparation for the festivity begins towards the end of October, when the relatives of the dead work on the particular offerings they will give to the souls of the departed. By the first of November, the altars at the former homes of the dead will display images of patron saints, photographs of those in the family who have died, flowers, fruits, pan de muerto, sugar skulls, and the favorite foods of the

treasured relatives who are now gone. A candle is lit for every soul. Then, as the tradition teaches, when the sun passes through the zenith, all the souls return to town and to their old homes, to which they are guided by the aroma of their favorite dishes. To make their brief visit even more pleasant, the souls of children are offered toys, while the elderly there is pulque or aguardiente, traditional alcoholic beverages from the Mexican countryside. Throughout the first two days of November, all the doors of the house remain open, to encourage visitors from all over town to participate in the celebration and to visit the family shrine. On the afternoon of the first, a coffin containing a white cardboard skeleton is carried through the streets of the town. As it passes by, women dressed in black and holding lit candles cry in sympathy. The entourage travels the streets, asking permission to enter the homes of the celebrants. Once inside, the casket is laid on the floor, and everyone kneels around it to pray. After the prayer, the owner of the home gives bread or sugar skulls as a farewell. The procession ends at the local cemetery, where a funeral is simulated. In Mixquic, the bells from the old Augustine Convent ring at 4pm on the second day of November, calling for a procession to the cemetery. The people come silently from their homes, carrying bundles of gladiolas, cempasuchil (the traditional flower of the Day of the Dead), and candles. The men, women, and children sweep and wash the graves, then cover them with the petals of the flowers they carry. They light their candles, they burn copal and incense, and pray. By midnight of the second, all the graves are lit by hundreds of candles which shine on the faces of those who have gathered. In the sounds of whispering and sobbing, a link is renewed between those alive and their loved ones who have died. Día de los Muertos is also celebrated in the Philippines where it is called Araw ng mga Patay. It is a somewhat more solemn affair and is seen as a time to be with the departed. Most activities are within the cemeteries. Tombs are cleaned and repainted, candles are lit and flowers offered. People spend a day or two at the graveside and there is much card playing, eating, drinking, dancing and singing.