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Day of the Dead Celebration… ironically, a festivity full of life!

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It’s no secret that Mexico is a country devoted to the art of the fiesta. But did you know that one of the most important annual celebrations in Mexico is the one dedicated to…death? It’s true, and ironically it is a festivity full of life!

Día de Muertos is a Mexican celebration with  pre-hispanic origins. The celebrations start with  Dia de todos los Santos (All Saints Day) on November 1st, a day dedicated to those souls who died as children, together with saints. It concludes on November 2nd, with the actual Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead was celebrated in Mexico even before the arrival of the Spanish explorers. Records have indicated that pre-Hispanic cultures including the MexicasMayasPurépechas and Totonacas celebrated the lives of their ancestors at least since 3,000 years ago.

Today, this is a Christian celebration that combines the pre-Hispanic culture with the Catholic religion, allowing the Mexicans to keep alive its oldest traditions. It mixes the contrasting feelings of the pain of loss in loosing a loved one with a colorful celebration of their life lived.

This celebration is full of traditions: people generally go to the cemeteries and bring flowers (marigolds being  the most popular, known as flower of death). Many of the family members congregate around the family’s gravestones the night of the 1st and build altars honoring the departed, which include their favorite foods and drink, belongings, pictures of the person while he was alive, water for the long trip, candles to iluminate their way, a crucifix and incense of “copal” that simbolizes the passing from life to afterlife. All this decorated with colorful papel picado, marigold flowers, “bread of the dead” and little sugar skulls. They believe that these altars help their dead relatives to have a good trip during their time departed. Other families – rather than going to the cemetery – prepare these altars at home including some or all of the items mentioned above.

Although this is a national celebration, there is one place in Mexico famous for its original and beautiful traditions: Janitzio. In this island in the middle of Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, the celebration begins the 1st at 6pm with the “toque de muertos” , that is the sound of the bells every half minute until the midnight. Right before this time, families congregate and go on a pilgrimage to the cementery in the island, crossing the lake in canoes that look like butterflies with thousands of candles creating a wonderful and surreal image, giving the island and fantastic effect with all the little sparks in between all the walking shadows and the sound of the tolling of the bells. Once in the cementery, people decorate their relative’s graves with flowers, light as many candles as they can and serve delicious dishes around it.

At midnight, men sing songs of praise around the grave, while women are on their knees pulling out the petals of the marigold, or cempasuchitl flowers, and spreading them around.

There’s a small church next to the cementary, here all the families who do not have dead relatives or those who passed away more than 3 years ago, get together for a religious ceremony, carrying only candles and saying spechless all night long. This obeys to a prehispanic belief that established that it would take 3 years for a dead person to get to the Mictlan (Heaven), where he will rest forever. That is why after the 3-year period of time, it is no longer necessary to accompany the departed in the cemetery, you need only to pray for them at the church.

Now you know why the celebration of the Day of the Dead in Janitzio has been declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in order to help the ritual survive and thrive in the modern world.

Would you like to adopt this beautiful tradition? Start this year creating your own Altar de Muertos dedicated to a good friend of family member who is not longer with you, here the basic elements to include:

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