So where does this whole Dia de los Muertos / Day of the Dead thing come from? It is actually a combination of beliefs and practices from the Aztec and Mayan cultures and the Catholic faith:
The Aztec, Mayan and other indigenous traditions have enriched the Mexican’s attitude about death. From these ancestors has come the knowledge that souls continue to exist after death, resting placidly in Mictlan, the land of the dead, not for judgment or resurrection; but for the day each year when they could return home to visit their loved ones.
Daily life in ancient Mexico was so uncertain and difficult that death was expected at every turn. Death, in fact was revered, believed to be the ultimate experience of life, life’s own reward, even welcomed as a better option when people are struggling for survival. (source)
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they encountered two-month celebrations honoring death, the fall harvest and the new year. For more than 500 years, the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead) presided over Aztec harvest rituals using fires and incense, costumes of animal skins, images of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers and foods, drink and flowers.
While the church attempted to transform the joyous celebration to a suitably tragic image of death and a serious day of prayer focusing attention and reflection on the saints and martyrs. The people of Mexico did not fully adopt the early priests’ ideas, and by keeping their familiar ceremonies, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day evolved into the celebrations that today honor the dead with color, candles, joy. (source)
Victor Landa, from San Antonio, TX, quotes the legend, “In our tradition, people die three deaths. The first death is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space we occupy slowly loses its meaning.
The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground, returned to mother earth, out of sight.
The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us.” (source)
Dia de los Muertos celebrations are a way to not only remember deceased family members and friends, participating in the festivities also honors the spirits of ancestors who kept traditions such as these alive for generations.
photo c/o Calpulli Mexican Dance Company