Monday, November 1, 2010

The Day of the Dead

Last week  one of the clients in my group complained that she didn't like Halloween falling on a Sunday.  To me, having it fall on a Sunday is great.  I was more than relieved that 'mischief night' didn't fall on a work night, so I wouldn't have to be dodging those eggs this year.  My first reaction to her statement was to ask if she was concerned about partying and getting home too late and having to get up to go to school the next day.  "No", she replied, "it's just that the day after Halloween we have to go to the cemetery to visit with the dead and make sure they are safe in her graves, and I'd really rather go on a weekend."  I wanted to question her more, but group was over, and several of my clients were approaching me with questions.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated on this date in Latin America and Spain, with offerings of food to honor the spirits of deceased loved ones.  Families visit cemeteries to clean the graves of loved ones, decorate them with flowers and candles, and commune with the spirits of the departed. Often, they picnic in the cemetery, bringing the deceased's favorite food and drink.    Colorful parades are held with people dressed as skeletons...a reminder that in death we actually continue life. As a matter of fact, there once was quite a few Mexicans in my area, and every year that would parade down my block. Skull masks and artwork of skeletons doing everyday activities, such as dancing, bicycle riding, and eating and drinking remind us that the everlasting soul continues on, separate from the body. 

The celebration then continues in the home, welcoming the dead with respect and devotion. Some families will make an elaborate dinner, set out the food and not eat it until the next day, to let the spirits eat first. They may also make the bed with fresh sheets to allow the spirits to rest after their long journey to earth. And they construct  individualized altars with offerings to maintain relations with the dead.    The Day of the Dead celebrations held on November 1st and 2nd acknowledge the culmination of the life cycle, and that death will come to us all, and while it directly follows Halloween, the holiday is not designed to scare or bring sadness.  The Day of the Dead allows the living to honor those who have died - family, friends, ancestors, and pets...and anyone can adopt this annual observance to remember their own deceased loved ones.

The  Day of the Dead that we know today originated some five-hundred years ago  when the Spanish conquistadors landed on  Central America. The area that they discovered was inhabited by the  great ancient civilization of the Aztecs and happened upon a group of the indigenous people performing a ritual that appeared to mock death. in actuality, though,  they had been practicing a tradition passed down from many generations, created in order to honor one's ancestors, a  tradition that had been carried on for countless centuries; that is,  until European influence took hold of the continent of North America.

It is believed that the Day of the Dead originated with the Olmecs, an ancient civilization that dominated the southern Mexican region through the years 1200 BC to 400 BC.  They were the progenitors of  civilizations such as the Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs and many others.  When they died out, the Aztecs carried on this festival and the legacy lived on.  The festival was originally celebrated in the 9th month of the Aztec calendar and was dedicated to the Lady of the Dead , the goddess Mictecacihuatl.  According to legend,  She had
died in childbirth, and it Her job  to watch over the bones of the dead...due to the belief that these bones were used to create humans in a future world. 

According to the Aztec belief, death was  a continuation of life, and life itself, was considered just a dream; only in death were they truly alive. (This is very similar to the Toltec belief that we are dreaming 24 hours a day, and what we dream  through is a filter of our beliefs.)  The Spanish saw this ritual as sacrilegious and attempted to stop it,  but this did not work so the Spaniards changed the date to correspond with the religious days of All Saint's Day (November 1) and All Soul's Day (November 2). This worked out for everyone and continues today as the main celebration days for Day of the Dead.

With flowers You paint,
O Giver of Life!
With songs You give color,
with songs You shade
those who will live on the earth.
Later You will destroy eagles and tigers:
we live only in Your painting
here, on the earth.
With black ink You will blot out
all that was friendship,
brotherhood, nobility.
You give shading
to those who will live on the earth.
We live only in Your book of paintings,
here on the earth
--Nezahualcoyot, ruler of the Texcoco--


  1. Thanks for the info about the origins of the Day of the Dead -- all new to me!

  2. ~wonderful post mary...some new to me as well...happy belated samhain blessings to you and yours...may it be a year filled with much l♥ve within and an abundance of blessings showering you each day...warm wishes and brightest blessings~

  3. Live and learn as the saying goes.
    I don't know about read and retain though.
    Wishing you a great week Mary. (((hugs)))