The Day of the Dead is an ancient tradition. It extends throughout Mexico and various Latin American countries. It’s a festivity listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage with different influences—including European ones— that has one purpose: During one or several days, we remember those who are no longer with us.
The origin of the Day of the Dead cannot be located in a single place in Mexico. The consensus among historians is that the traditions dedicated to the deceased date back to pre-Hispanic times. More than two thousand years ago, various cultures ranging from the Mexica to the Zapotec worshipped death, sending off those who passed to Mictlán, the Aztec underworld containing the nine circles of Hell that souls must go through until they reach peace.
The pre-Hispanic ritual of sending off the dead included sacrifices and offerings for them to carry during their journey. Specialists have also discovered that in Europe tributes were offered to anonymous martyrs as well. The Conquest of Mexico generated an interesting cultural fusion: Catholic images mixed with pre-Hispanic elements, such as skulls, copal, marigold flowers, or traditional food that varies based on the region where the altar is placed.
Among the elements that distinguish the Day of the Dead is the classic bread of the dead, which highlights the ancestral gastronomic knowledge of countless regions, with the flavor and style of a piece varying according to the place where it’s made. The traditional design, with sugary bones and a circular shape at the center, also has a colonial origin—it symbolizes the human sacrifices that were made in pre-Hispanic cultures. The bone-like figures represent the extremities, and the circumference represents the head or heart, depending on the legend.
Why is death celebrated with folklore in Mexico? It is the end of one cycle and, within the ancestral worldview, the beginning of another. Those who leave want to be remembered with joy, as a traditional song from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, “La Martiniana,” says, “Don’t cry, no. Because if you cry, I suffer. Whereas, if you sing to me, I always live and never die.” Mexican homes receive their departed loved ones every year with marigold flowers, papel picado, the scent of copal and traditional food such as mole, fruits and bread.