Before Halloween, there was the Day of the Dead in parts of the United States.

October 31, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that occasionally I write about issues part of the American culture that sometimes pop up during a speech and can be useful to interpreters in the booth that are not familiar with U.S. history or traditions. Every year I write about Halloween because it is one tradition everyone follows in the United States not widely known or understood abroad. You can go back to this blog’s archives and read the articles I posted during October on previous years.

This time, I decided to talk about a very popular and unique celebration in Mexico, and among Hispanics in the American Southwest: “El Día de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead).

The Day of the Dead originated before the Europeans arrived to the Americas. It was motivated by the view native people had of death and those who had passed away. Many celebrations varied from town to town. I will focus on the Aztecs because they were the biggest empire in what we now know as Mexico and the southwestern part of the United States, and because observing this holiday was documented by the conquistadors in the Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún (originally titled “La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España” _The Universal History of the Things of New Spain_) (Florentine Codex. De Sahagún, Bernardino. 1793. Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy).

Originally the Aztec Empire observed the Day of the Dead holiday during what is now the month of November. In its current, form it was included by UNESCO in the World Heritage List in 2008. It was a religious holiday dedicated to the god and goddess of the underworld (Mictlán): Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl.

When a person died, their soul had to go through several obstacles before it could reach eternal rest. Mictlán (the underworld), was created by the gods of creation (Xipetótec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcóatl, and Huitzilopochtli) and it was divided in nine regions according to the manner of death. The House of the Sun (Tonatiuh Ichan) was reserved for those warriors who died on battlefield. Women who died during childbirth would go to Cihuatlampa; and Cincalco, home of the god Tonacatecutli, was the final resting place for those who died as infants.

The death of an Aztec was announced with chants and tears by elderly women. Next, the body was enshrouded along with its personal belongings and it was symbolically fed the most exquisite dishes. After four days, the body was buried or cremated. At this time the soul started its journey. For four years on the anniversary of the demise, friends and family members would hold ceremonial rituals at the site of the burial to help its soul on its way to its final resting place.

When the Spaniards arrived to Mexico, the holiday was replaced by the Catholic All Saints’ Day, to honor those who died as infants (Día de Todos los Santos), and All Souls’ Day, to honor those who passed away as adults (Día de los Fieles Difuntos) observed on November 1 and 2 respectively.

According to tradition, the souls of those who died come back to visit their family, and their living relatives greet them with an offering, on an altar, where they place a portrait of the deceased. They burn incense or copal (from the Náhuatl word copalli, meaning incense) an aromatic tree resin from the copal used as incense by pre-Columbian people during religious ceremonies so the deceased relative can smell it and find the altar where the family awaits. They also put veladoras (candles) to represent fire and light. They also help the soul of the deceased by showing them where the offerings in their honor are. Water and the person’s favorite beverage in life are on the altar, with cempasúchil flowers, the twenty petal flower, sugar skulls (Aztecs used real human skulls during their empire) and a special sweet bread called Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) named this way because it complements the sugar skull, as this bread is the representation of the skeleton of the deceased. Sometimes, cigarettes, paper ornaments in festive colors, and festive, funny poems about the person who passed away (calaveritas literarias) are also part of the offering.

This tradition is popular in Janitzio, an island in Lake Pátzcuaro (Michoacán) and San Andrés Mixquic, a former island in the middle of the now dry Lake Chalco, in southeastern Mexico City (Tláhuac Borough) where friends and family members go to the cemetery, clean the graves, and set up the offerings, including food and drinks, before they sit down and spend the night by the gravesite waiting for thee souls to come. During the night, family members do an “alumbrada”, the lighting of thousands of candles that make the cemetery glow. Although the festivities at these two cemeteries are now touristic attractions, seen by thousands who go to these towns from all over the world, this tradition can be seen in most Mexican homes and cemeteries, and in the Hispanic communities of the Southwestern United States where Mexicans and other Latin American groups observe the traditional offerings, and religious rituals.

In the 21st century, many people have combined the Day of the Dead holiday with Halloween. It is common to see families participating in both traditions in both, Mexico and the United States.

Next time you are interpreting, and a speaker refers to the Day of the Dead, or somebody asks you if it is the same as Halloween, you can now explain what it is, and you can tell them the difference between them. Because the Day of the Dead is observed in many countries throughout the world, I now invite you to share with us the traditions and festivities linked to this season in your country of origin.

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§ 3 Responses to Before Halloween, there was the Day of the Dead in parts of the United States.

  • I found your article on LinkedIn and I have to tell you that I found it to be very interesting and informative, tocayo! Thank you for sharing it =)

    I’m originally from Catalonia. People there celebrate the Castanyada, which is mainly observed on November 1. Like Halloween and Day of the Dead, it has origins in ancient funerary rituals.

    Celebrating Castanyada involves eating roast chestnuts, panellets (small cakes or cookies), roast or baked sweet potato, and preserved fruit (candied or glazed fruit), typically with moscatell (Muscat wine) to drink..

  • mauthers says:

    Sería entretenido especular sobre los nuevos sincretismos, pues ahora observo cada año una especie de fusión entre ambas festividades en México. Los niños de hoy comienzan a mezclar algunas cosas, como el uso de “calaverita” para referirse al repositorio de dulces que utilizan durante Halloween.

  • maria herminia alonso says:

    Wonderful stories, as usual. Thanks a bunch!!!

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