The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.-Octavio Paz, Mexican poet and essayist
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a uniquely Mexican holiday that occurs on November 1 & 2. In his work, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, Alan Riding explains, “On the Day of the Dead each November, Mexicans crowd the country cemeteries, carrying flowers and even food and drink to the graves of their ancestors, much as the Aztecs did.” Day of the Dead is about remembering and honoring lost family, friends, and other loved ones.
Interestingly, the Day of the Dead differs from Halloween in the USA. (Some people do celebrate Halloween down here, but it is a separate thing) Day of the Dead began as a religious practice of the Aztecs, stemming from the worship of Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death.1 Here in Mexico, on Day of the Dead and the days leading up to it, people will visit the gravesites of their lost loved ones and, at minimum, will clean them. Some will set up an ofrenda (offering) on an altar with photos of the deceased person, food, and drink items and cover it with marigolds. Boye Lafayette De Mente, in his book NTC’s Dictionary of Mexican Cultural Code Words, explains the use of marigolds, “The days of the great Aztec empire are recalled by outdoor markets literally overflowing with marigolds, which the Aztecs considered sacred to the dead. They are still called flores de los muertos or ‘flowers of the dead.’” The main symbol of the holiday is the skeleton, specifically the skull. Because of this, one will see people dressed up as skeletons or with their faces painted as a skull.
Here in Chihuahua, the signs of this important holiday are everywhere, from the pan de muerto (bread of death) sold in our local grocery stores to the many alters erected in the stores. Even our local hardware store had a big alter set up this year showing pictures of employees’ relatives and even pets that had passed away.
For some, it is about remembrance; for others, it is a genuine way to interact with deceased loved ones who have passed on. Because of this, Christians typically do not celebrate Day of the Dead.
Jude and I are reading a really great book called The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus. It is a chronological telling of the Biblical narrative from creation to the resurrection of Christ, hitting on important Scriptural themes. Of those themes are the issues of sin and death. We learn from the Bible that death came into the world because of sin. Thankfully, while death touches everyone, it is not the final word for believers in Jesus. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23) The Christian hope and message is eternal life in Christ! “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)
- ”Augustin Cline,““Mictecacihuatl: The Goddess of Death in Aztec Religious Mythology,” Learn Religion, last modified January 24, 2018, https://www.learnreligions.com/mictecacihuatl-aztec-goddess-of-death-248587. ↩︎