Dias de Los Muertos/Mexican Days of the Dead - Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Dias de Los Muertos/Mexican Days of the Dead
Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

See also Festivals of the Dead, Halloween, and Samhain.

The Days of the Dead refers to a three-day festival that fuses pre-Columbian indigenous celebrations with those of Roman Catholicism. Because the Roman Catholic feast day that honors the deceased also incorporates a tremendous amount of older pagan spirituality and tradition, the modern Mexican Days of the Dead is a tremendously complex celebration.One must specify Mexican Days of the Dead because virtually every Latin American community throughout South and Central America also has some sort of commemorative feast, as do many communities elsewhere. Although the purpose is identical, traditions vary greatly. Aspects of the Mexican Days of the Dead have become increasingly influential over Neo-Pagan spirituality.

November Eve and the days immediately before and after are internationally considered the time when the dead visit the living. Depending upon perspectives toward the nature of the dead, some cultures find this a scary time. In other words, if the revenant dead can only be up to no good, then the time when they return is a time of great danger.

In traditional Mexican culture, however, the dead are welcomed, feasted, propitiated, and then sent safely on their way. This is the natural order: it is natural for the dead to appear at this time and it is natural for them to depart afterwards. The dead who are not propitiated and treated with respect, love, and honor are those who may linger and become troublesome ghosts. It is in the community’s interest for this not to occur, and the Days of the Dead are celebrated by individuals and families but also by communities at large. To witness Days of the Dead celebrations in Mexican villages is to understand how festivals like Beltane, Midsummer’s or Samhain must once have been an entire community’s affair.

Extremely similar festivals honoring the dead were once held at this time of year throughout Italy, most especially in Salerno. The practice was banned by the Church in the fifteenth century.

There isn’t just one fixed way to celebrate the Dias de los Muertos. Traditions vary depending on location and region, however some themes and traditions remain consistent. Each day of the three-day festival is dedicated to a different community of the deceased. The dead are envisioned as a parade of spirits, arriving in scheduled hosts arranged according to age and manner of death.

The Mexican Days of the Dead is a celebratory festival, combining humor with devotion, a lust for life with an acceptance of death. Traditional Aztec culture didn’t fear death. Death was understood as a period of deep sleep or true reality, while life (or lives) was the dreams experienced during this sleep/death. Modern Mexican culture revels in humorous, grotesque, defiant artistic celebrations of death, which simultaneously celebrate life, too. Death isn’t a topic to be avoided but instead it is defied and mocked while simultaneously respected and revered.

Image Images of skeletons and skulls are omnipresent.

Image Decorated sugar skulls fill the stores in the period leading up to the holiday in the same manner that pumpkins and Halloween-oriented cookies and candies do at this time in the United States.

Image Special holiday foods are prepared and served only at this time of year, including certain moles (Mexican stews featuring bitter chocolate) and the “Bread of the Dead”—a sweet loaf decorated with skulls and crossbones.

An ofrenda, translated into English as an “offering table” or altar, is set up in the home. The ofrenda serves as the magnet that guides and welcomes the spirits of the deceased. A table is beautifully decorated and laden with the feast to be shared by the living and the dead.

Technically the festivities begin the eve of October 31st in conjunction with the Roman Catholic festival of All Hallows Eve, however, depending upon region or village, it may begin as early as October 27th. Commemorations prior to the 31st are more openly pagan in orientation than the official three-day period, which is technically a Roman Catholic feast.

What follows is a standard calendar for the Days of the Dead. However be advised that this is subject to variation.

Image October 27th is dedicated to those who died without families, whose families have since died out or to those who, for whatever reason, have no one to welcome them and create an ofrenda for them. Sad, lonely, and potentially jealous and resentful, if left hungry and unpropitiated these are the spirits who can potentially become dangerous, malevolent ghosts. Bread and water is placed outside for them.

Image October 28th is dedicated to those who died violently, whether by accident or through intention. They, too, are given fresh bread and water.

In both these cases, food and drink is placed outside, not inside the home. The intention is to prevent the phenomenon of destructive, malicious, “hungry ghosts,” not to have the ghosts become so comfortable that they decide to move in.

Image October 29th is a day of preparation.

Image October 30th is dedicated to pagan babies and babies in limbo, those children who died without baptism or unknown wandering children’s souls. Bread, water, and small things that would please a child (sweets, toys, juice) are placed outside.

Up until this point, any food offered is not shared by the living. Once given, it is left outside.

The night of October 31st may be dedicated to dead children while November 1st is for deceased adults. In some communities, however, November 1st is the Dia de los Angelitos (the Day of the Little Angels). Children’s graves are given special attention and ofrendas devoted to children are erected.

Image October 31st is offered to dead children whom a family knew and loved. The offering is made in the home; the dead souls from this point on are welcomed into the home.

Image November 1st is dedicated to deceased adults, friends, family members, loved ones or those whom one admires and wishes to honor. Offerings may be made at home or brought to the cemetery, where living and dead may feast together.

Image By the evening of November 2nd, the dead should be gone, well on their way back to where they came from. Trails of shredded yellow marigold blossoms may be laid to lead them back to the family plot. Stubborn, lingering ghosts are sent on their way by masked mummers. This once would have been the shaman’s job.