An Offering for the Day of the Dead

In pre-Hispanic times, the Mexica (Aztec) commemorated the dead during their summer months, around July and August; the offerings included elements of Nature, such as fire, flowers, and part of the harvest.  Mictēcacihuātl, also known as “The Lady of the Dead”, was the female deity of the Mexica pantheon dedicated to guard the bones of the deceased in the underworld; she was said to come to the dimension of the living during this time.  Cempasúchil (Mexican marigold) already decorated tombs and offerings, and Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless dogs) were known as guides for the souls (particularly children), in their journey between earth and the underworld.

In Christianity, the first evidence of November 1st as a day of celebration of the feast of All Saints was recorded during the time of Pope Gregory III (731–741 AD), who on that day, dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s, in Rome, to honour all saints and martyrs; later on, in 837 AD, Pope Gregory IV ordered its general observance as the religious feast of All Saints’ Day.  In England, the date was known as All Hallows-mas during the Middle Ages; people prepared for their celebration with a vigil the night before, that is, All Hallows’ Eve.  Finally,  Odilo, the fifth Abbot of Cluny, in France, assigned November 2nd as All Souls’ Day in 998 AD, a day specific for remembering and praying for those who had passed away but were still in the process of purification; this observance gradually spread throughout the Catholic Church towards the end of the 10th century.  The three days all together were sometimes referred to as All-hallow-tide.

With the arrival of the Catholic church to Mesoamerica, not long after the Spanish conquest (1520s),  the native population’s conversion process was eased by incorporating elements of their culture into Christian holidays.  The summer rituals to commemorate the dead were moved to November, to combine with the observances of All Saints and All Souls days.  Christian symbols, such as fire and water, were already part of pre-Hispanic offerings, and others, such as religious images, crosses, and bread, were incorporated to eliminate the stigma of native polytheism, and replace the local corn and amaranth culture with wheat.  Nowadays, many families in Mexico, Central America, and Southern United States, continue to set-up offerings with a fusion of pre-Hispanic and Christian elements, in honour of their beloved deceased.  The cooking and setting-up takes place at the end of October, continues with the observation of the feast of “Todos los santos” (All Saints’) and “Santos Inocentes” (innocent Saints, departed children) on November 1st, and concludes with praying, and staying alert, awaiting the visit of “los fieles difuntos” (the faithful deceased) on the well known celebration of “Día de los muertos” (Day of the Dead), on November 2nd.

This year, I have prepared an offering at home inspired by traditions from Central Mexico, specifically San Andres Míxquic, a community located in the Mexico City borough of Tláhuac.  The community was founded as one of the original seven settlements around the lakes, on what was a small island in Lake Chalco.  The Day of the Dead is one of the most important celebrations in Mixquic, and the ceremonies and events at its church graveyard have become famous, in and outside Mexico.  Excavations in this area revealed a few archaeological pieces, and specialists in the area have identified important remains of stone façades sculpted with skull motifs; maybe this is one of the reasons why offerings in Mixquic always include golletes, bread rings with a pink sugar coating, which are hung vertically to represent the pre-Hispanic Tzompantli – a rack or wall displaying rows of human skulls.  Other elements must also be included, such as paths decorated with coloured sawdust, cempasúchil, and white flowers (or pink, for departed children), along with offering and partaking of local traditional dishes, such as mixmole (a freshwater fish stew).  I was able to bake golletes , and grew my own cempasúchil, as I mentioned in my previous two posts, and I also cooked two batches of mixmole (red and green, recipes in my next post).  In the photo below, a full view of my Day of the Dead offering:

The essential elements mentioned above, as well as other items, as marked in the photo below, include1) A woven mat call petate, for the souls to lie down to rest.  Several purifying elements such as 2) salt, 3) water, and 4) burning cleansing incense or copal (a resin).  5) Candles (fire), the light representing hope and faith, and also serving as guidance along the path between worlds.  The path is often made with 7) coloured sawdust, and adorned with 8) cempasúchil flowers and petals. 9) Sugar skulls represent the souls of the departed.  For nourishment, 6) traditional food (red and green mixmole), and fresh produce, are displayed, as well as 10) beverages, and special bread, in this case, as mentioned above, 11) golletes. Mexican dogs had important roles in rituals for the dead; as I mentioned above, Xoloitzcuintli were seen as guides and companions for the souls in the underworld, particularly for children, and in this offering, I included a small figurine of dancing 12) Tlalchichis, a breed of small, chubby canines. which is believed to have actually replaced humans in some sacrificial rituals.  In recent decades, death is often represented with figures of 13) La Catrina, a dressed-up skeleton.  The offering is decorated with 14) White flowers, dedicated to the souls, and 15) papel picado, chiselled paper with designs of the season, to remember the impermanence of life.  Finally, at the top of the offering, 16) religious figures represent the heavenly realm, where the souls aspire to arrive at the end of the journey.

My sister has been learning how to emboss metal, and she is participating in a Day of the Dead event and exposition, in Culiacán, Sinaloa, with two of her works, themed for the occasion; after she embossed the metal, tracing the spectral silhouettes, she painted and decorated them (photo below, left).  In the photo below, right, she is also seen posing next to one of the offerings at the event, which was personalized by the creators with the inclusion of photographs of their dearly departed, and presumably, some of their favourite earthly items:

Remembering and celebrating the lives of our dearly departed, while reflecting on the brevity of our time on Earth, come all together each November 2 for many Mexican families, resulting in a bittersweet feeling, but full of joy and hope for the future, a symbolic wishbone that is not broken, but gets renewed every Día de los Muertos.

12 thoughts on “An Offering for the Day of the Dead

  1. Irene, that was a beautiful narration of the origins of this tradition and the explanation of the offering! Thank you again for sharing your knowledge and your colorful ‘altar de muertos’.

    Liked by 1 person

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