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10 Fascinating Facts and Traditions for the "Day of the Dead"

The Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) is upon us. The Mexican holiday goes back to the time of the Aztecs, who believed that the souls of the dead would only rest after receiving sacrifices. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, these rituals were merged with elements of the Catholic faith.

SEE ALSO: 10 Facts About Santa Muerte, Our Lady of Sacred Death

The three-day event begins with All Hallows & # 39; Eve on the 31st of October. This is followed by All Saints Day (1 November) and All Souls Day (2 November), at which the spirits of deceased children and adults are to return. While this may not sound particularly uplifting, Mexicans have a rather complicated attitude toward death. The Day of the Dead is a time to celebrate the dead loved ones. Altars are erected to show the dead how much they are missing. Families gather in cemeteries by candlelight and tell stories. And spectacular festivals bring Mexican cities to life. Schoolchildren even write poetic obituaries called Calaveritas. These playful rhymes are traditionally used to mock the living, including Mexican politicians and celebrities, by telling them how they will die.

The Day of the Dead is an intellectually and culturally unique event. From butterflies to skeletons, every aspect of this spectacular holiday has a hidden meaning. Let's take a look at some of the most surprising facts and traditions on the Day of the Dead.

Underworld ruler who inspired an icon

One of Dia de Muertos' most famous figures is a female skeleton called La Calavera Catrina (aka "Elegant Skull"). The locals make statues of La Catrina and put them on altars. Her characteristic face is often painted over shop windows. And partygoers mimic their appearance with sugar skull make-up. It symbolizes the idea that death is the great compensation. It comes for all of us, regardless of wealth.

The Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada originally created La Catrina. While running his own lithography business in Mexico City, Posada created prints that challenged government corruption and social inequality. He aimed at President Porfirio Diaz and believed that the seven-year-old ruler amassed wealth at the expense of Mexico's underclass.

The first drawing of La Catrina was made in 1910, in which it is shown in robes of European high society. The satirical play depicts the destruction of Mexico's wealthy elite while mocking President Diaz's fondness for European culture. The original title of the illustration, La Calavera Garbancera, mocked local Mexicans trying to portray themselves as Europeans.

La Catrina has even deeper roots. Posada's inspiration came from the queen of the Aztec underworld, Mictecacihuatl (a.k.a the Lady of the Land of the Dead). It was said that Mictecacihuatl guarded a chamber full of human bones. It not only protected the souls of the dead, but even offered them a safe passage between various aircraft.

Posada's work was closely watched by the painter Diego Rivera. In 1947 he showed La Catrina in his now famous mural "Dream of Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central". Since then, La Catrina has been the figurehead for the Day of the Dead. [1]

9 Altars of the dead

The altar of the dead (altar de muertos) is the cornerstone of every day of the dead. These shrines are used throughout rural and urban Mexico to make gifts to the spirits of the dead. The spirits find the offerings (ofrendas), following the trail of flowers and burning candles. The stinging smell of incense purifies the souls of the approaching spirits and wards of evil. Each altar is also overflowing with the favorite food and drink of a deceased relative of a family. Sugar skulls, the bread of the dead (Pan de Muertos), tamales, tequila and beer are offered to nourish the soul. Other common items are statues, photographs, valuable possessions and poems.

While offerings are usually made at home, many families prefer to place altars on the grave stones of their loved ones. Graveyards are an important place for the celebrations of the Day of the Dead. Gravesite bands play music. Hundreds of candles glow warmly over the gravestone rows. And the locals spend the night telling stories about their loved ones. The Ofrendas shown in public places are usually dedicated to famous Mexican personalities. In the Cathedral of Mexico City, an altar was erected for the late Pope John Paul II. And artists compete to build the best altars on the Constitution Square.

The altar is a mixture of Aztec and Catholic traditions. It is divided into levels that represent the different levels of existence. Some altars have two levels (heaven and earth) or three levels (sky, earth and underworld). Seven-level altars are the most common. They represent the seven levels that a soul must cross to reach either the underworld or the sky. [2]

8 Bone wash

In the remote town of Pomuch in southeastern Mexico, locals celebrate the Day of the Dead by cleaning the bones of their deceased relatives. The Mayan locals are buried according to normal tradition. After three years, the "cleaned" remains are exhumed. The dirt-covered bones are then cleaned with brushes and put on display in special wooden boxes.

In the run-up to the Day of the Dead, the city dwellers visit the local cemetery and begin the cleansing ritual. The tradition is a morbid touch for most Westerners, and indeed a happy one. The gravestones are painted. Shrines are brightly decorated with flowers and candles. The colorful interiors of the wooden display cases are being repaired or replaced. And the cemetery comes alive with stories and jokes.

Some enterprising inhabitants have even made the washing of bones a business. Cemetery Worker Venancio Tus Chi offers a bone washing service for just $ 2. According to Venancio, practice is important to ensure that the returning souls "see that they have not been forgotten". Mayan citizens believe that washing the bones guarantees a peaceful life in the hereafter. It is said that the spirits of all the neglected remains return to haunt the streets of Pomuch. [3]

7 The Mexican Hairless Dog

Movie fans may remember Disney Pixar's setting for the Day of the Dead. The animated film Coco 2017 shows a playful dog named Dante. The dog leads his young owner through the land of the dead and finally helps him escape.

Dante belongs to the Xoloitzcuintle breed of hairless dogs. The Xoloitzcuintle dog takes its name from Xolotl, the Aztec god of lightning and fire. Legend has it that the gods replicated the sun many times. But on the fifth try, the celestial body would not move. In one version of the Creation myth, Xolotl tried to get the sun going by sacrificing the other gods. He then traveled to the Land of the Dead to recover the bones of those who died in the fourth cycle of life and death. The Aztecs believed that Xolotl was responsible for their existence by using the bones of the underworld to shape the present generation of humans. He then acted as a "night traveler," guiding the sun safely through the underworld every night.

Xolotl, depicted with a dog's head, allowed the Xolos to protect humans and lead their souls into the underworld. This meant that the Aztecs often sacrificed the dogs and buried them with the dead. This practice eventually disappeared when clay statues were used instead.

Although Disney's Coco was well received, the company's attempt to use the words "Dia de los Muertos" as a trademark caused public outcry. Fortunately, the company quickly reversed its decision. [4]

6 Breaking Bad and the Santa Muerte Ritual

La Calavera Catrina is the secular and universally recognized icon of Dia de Muertos. La Catrina, however, preceded a darker form: Santa Muerte. Santa Muerte, also known as Our Lady of Sacred Death, is a feminine folk saint who came to the scene shortly after the Spanish Inquisition. Their appearance, similar to that of the Grim Reaper, is probably the fusion of European Catholicism and Mesoamerican mysticism. It is often depicted with a scythe and a globe or a scale.

The support for Santa Muerte remains controversial and is strongly discouraged by the Catholic Church. But in recent years, her following has grown. The saint now has over 10 million followers, which is the fastest growing religion in North and South America. For many Mexicans, it is also an important part of Dia de Muertos. Believers consecrate their holy shrines. They present offerings of tequila, cigarettes, food and bones. It is hoped that Santa Muerte will return the favor by following the wishes of her worshipers. While most Mexicans desire peace and prosperity, others are not so good-natured.

The Skeleton Saint today plays a prominent role in narcoculture. According to law enforcement agencies, drug traffickers have been praying to Santa Muerte to help smuggle drugs across the US-Mexico border. "Officers enter houses with search warrants and encounter elaborate Santa Muerte shrines," said Robert Almonte, a former narcotics officer.

Mexican cartels such as La Familia Michoacana and the Golf Cartel have even brought human sacrifices to Santa Muerte. In 2008, the Gulf Cartel captured members of a rival gang and set them up in front of a shrine in Santa Muerte. Other offerings included human heads, hearts and skin.

Two Mexican killers are sent out on the television show Breaking Bad to kill teacher-in-the-law chef Walter White. Before they travel, they crawl on their bellies to a dilapidated hut. There they make a sacrifice and place a picture of their destination at a candle-lit shrine. Your deity? Santa Muerte. [5]

5 Guidance of spirits

The Day of the Dead coincides with the migration of millions of monarch butterflies. Every October, the beautiful creatures travel south to Mexico. This incredible 2000-mile journey takes several months. These butterflies are much larger and stronger than the typical garden monarchs and can survive for up to eight months. How they overcome such long distances, scientists do not know. However, many Mexicans believe that the migration pattern of the butterfly is no coincidence.

The tribes of the Mazahua and Purepecha believe that the monarchs hold the spirits of their dead relatives. One month before the Day of the Dead, the Mazahua ring a bell to call the butterflies. "Here come the dead," shout the tribe members. They then let out water bowls for the thirsty travelers. This belief has even influenced the design of the coffins of the tribe. In each coffin a small hole is placed so that the "butterfly souls" can escape the graves.

These souls are also helped in other ways. Marigold petals are strewn over graves to awaken the spirits of the dead. It is believed that the Mexican marigold (Tagetes erecta) attracts the spirits with its strong scent and bright orange flower petals. The Mexican people sometimes use the petals to shape paths and guide the spirits to artfully decorated altars.

The Aztecs believed marigolds had a sacred connection to the sun and placed them over bodies of the dead. They offered human sacrifices to appease Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun and war, in the hope of saving the sun from ruin. The sun was not only the key to life, but also a heavenly shepherd who led the spirits into the underworld. [6]

4 The cemetery crisis

In Mexico City, on the day of the dead are threatened. The cemeteries of the city are now so crowded that officials are digging corpses just to make room for new bodies. At the end of the funeral, the remains of surviving family members will be handed over for cremation. If there is no family that can be contacted, the old remains are buried among the new ones. In view of the 9 million inhabitants of the capital, the government has now proposed to limit the duration of burial of corpses more closely. Some cemeteries even decided to exhume corpses after just one year.

"What really bothers us is that they do not respect our loved ones," said Jose Jimenez, a cemetery administrator in one of the smaller municipalities. "They come a year or two after we bury them and bring them out of the grave. And bury those who come next. "

Many residents fear that the city's recent attempts to promote cremation could jeopardize the day of the dead and its uniqueness traditions. An exhumation would prevent certain families from visiting the graves of their loved ones – an integral part of the Day of the Dead celebrations.

The Catholic Church had previously imposed a ban on cremation. Church leaders finally capitulated when it became clear that the burial sites were in short supply. But more conservative Catholics have resisted cremation. They either pay large sums for burial rights or use aboveground mausoleums and crypts in which corpses are stacked on top of each other. [7]

3 Cemetery crimes and bulletproof mausoleums

Grave visits on November 1 and 2 are a major target for thieves. As the crime gets out of control, many party-goers have decided to avoid tombs. The Iztapalapa cemetery in Mexico City saw a significant drop in visitor numbers on the day of the dead. In 2005, around 31,000 people visited the site. In 2015 there were only 12,000 left. The local police are patrolling the cemeteries to protect the mourners.

Many have chosen instead to celebrate the Day of the Dead at home. Rosa Maria Aloron, a native of Iztapalapa, now visits the tombs of her family a few weeks before the holidays. "Many of my friends were robbed here, so it's better to come earlier," she explained.

Activists used the Day of the Dead to highlight Mexico's murder problem. Photos of victims of violent crime, gang warfare, mass shootings and kidnappings are often placed on special altars throughout Mexico. It is not uncommon to see vigils at the statue of the Angel of Independence in the heart of the state capital.

Dead drug cartels are no longer safe either. Culiacan in northwestern Mexico is home to the Sinaloa cartel. The cemetery Jardines Del Humaya was built to house the bodies of the cartel members and their families. The mausoleums of the site are protected by security gates, cameras and bulletproof glass. These elaborate structures cost up to $ 500,000 and include TVs, air conditioners, and expensive bottles of alcohol. [8]

2 James Bond inspires the Mexico City Festival

The opening sequence of James Bond's Twenty-Fourth Tour, Specter, takes place on the Day of the Dead. We follow 007 through a lively Dia de Muertos festival in Mexico City. The impressive spectacle consists of huge skeleton puppets, bands, dancers and marigold-covered crucifixes. Female revelers play the role of La Catrina. And the men disguise themselves as neat skeletons.

Before the release of Specter, there had never been such a festival in Mexico City. In 2016, government officials teamed with the city's tourism board to bring the event to fruition. Today, hundreds of thousands visit the festival every year. A procession of brass bands and dancers roams the streets with huge mojiganga dolls. These emerging figures consist of wooden frames and paper mache. The puppeteer operates the mojiganga from within and shakes his body to make the giant dance.

The Totenkopf-Karnevals army with dancing skeletons also crosses the 1 km long track. Aztec warriors on roller skates remind the Mexicans of their heritage. And ghost animal poses give the occasion a touch of torch. These colorful sculptures, called Alebrijes, were first created by Mexican artist Pedro Linares. He saw the mythical animals in his dreams and decided to create them anew. From donkeys with butterfly wings to cockbull hybrids, Linares' shows are an unforgettable sight. [9]

1 Dances with old men … and fishing

The Dance of the Ancients (Danza de los Viejitos) is another export of Purepecha. The dance, which is often seen on the Day of the Dead, is as deceptive as it is funny. The routine usually requires three or more dancers, each wearing the mask of an older man. It's a slow start. The decrepit, toothless men are frail and poorly coordinated. The group hobbles around sticks and occasionally collides. But as the tempo of the music speeds up, the degenerate creatures come alive with rhythm. The pounding of the foot (zapateado) is tuned to the rhythm of the violins and guitars. And the vivacious affair sometimes ends with the old men collapsing with exhaustion.

The dance of the old men is a pre-colonial dance. It was used to praise Huehueteotl, the ancient god of fire. Huehueteotl is often depicted as an old man saddled with a brazier. The dance was eventually modified to playfully mock the Spanish conquerors whom the Mesoamericans believed had become infirm by their own inactivity.

The Dance of the Fish (Danza del Pescado) is another notable representation. A dancer puts on a big fish costume and tries to avoid some fishermen and a crocodile. Other artists play strings of small woodfish that rattle to the beat of the drums. Eventually even a mermaid will join the action. Fishermen scattered over certain parts of the Balsas River perform the dance to bring luck to the hunters. [10]

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