When the Spanish Conquistadores landed in what is now known as Mexico 500 years ago, they found the Aztecs and Meso-American civilizations displaying skulls in a ritual that appeared to mock death. Historically falling in the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August, the Dia de los Muertos was celebrated for the whole month. Celebrations were hosted by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as ‘Lady of the Dead’, who was believed to have died in childbirth. Skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth.
Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the indigenous peoples viewed it as a continuation of life. However, the Spanish Conquistadores deemed the ritual to be sacrilegious, and the Aztecs to be barbaric pagans. In the Spaniard’s crusade to bring Catholicism to the Aztecs, they tried to eradicate the ritual, but eventually reached a compromise by moving it to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1st and 2nd respectively).
Today, November 1st is for remembrance of deceased infants and children – los angelitos. Those who have died as adults are honoured on the 2nd. From mid-October, an array of macabre toys and decorations are available, as well as strange sweets and candies, such as edible coffins and skulls; and special baked goods like pan de muerte – all of which are intended for the offering to the dead. In homes, altars are created to honour deceased relatives, including photographs, fresh flowers, incense and a selection of their favourite foods, so that when the spirits pay a visit, they will have enough sustenance for their journey. On the 2nd, family members gather in the cemetery to be with deceased loved ones. They take picnics, tequila and even a mariachi band. Fireworks herald the start of open-air masses.