Cempasúchil flowers, sugar skulls, white candles, cut-out paper, moving photos, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), treasured photos, seeds and fruits, the tacos al pastor that loved one used to like so much and the tequila that couldn’t be missing for pairing with that tortilla, trompo and pineapple feast.
The whole Mexican family from those who walk this land to those who have parted to distant dimensions, we gather once a year around the altar for the dead, to celebrate together, to reconnect.
Four elements, seven levels
The ritual begins at the end of October and reaches its peak on November 2nd. We have to gather all the elements. There must be air (represented by cut-out paper), water (drinks), fire (candles) and earth (seeds). We also have to decide if the altar will be two, three or seven steps tall. Two steps represent earth and sky. Three step altars represent purgatory, although it is said it also refers to the holy Trinity, in an adjustment for syncretism. But those which have seven levels are the most sophisticated: the first step hold the picture of a saint or virgin; the second holds candles and lights for the souls in purgatory in order to help them get out of there; the third holds toys and salt figurines for the children; the forth holds pan de muerto; the fifth holds the departed’s favorite food and drinks, their tequila or mezcal; the sixth holds pictures; and the seventh holds crosses and rosary beads, preferably made out of seeds. The cempasúchil flowers will guide the dead with their perfume and a salt cross shall work as a compass, to allow them to reach this point where they can meet again those who long for them.
Path to the underworld
The tradition has been modified and has acquired new meaning after mixing with Catholicism after the Colonization, but it has its origin in pre-Hispanic times, when native cultures considered death as a coupling that included life. In this ancestral vision, dying was the beginning of a journey to Mictlán (Xibalbá for the Mayans), the kingdom of the dead, or underworld, which Spaniards interpreted under their own concept of hell. This journey took four days and it was convenient to be accompanied by a xoloitzcuintle dog. Upon reaching his destination, the traveler offered gifts to Mictlantecuhtli and her companion, Mictecacíhuatl, who sent him to one of nine regions, where the departed stayed for a trial period of four years before moving on to Mictlán. With some modifications, this beliefs pervaded all Meso-American cultures and, therefore, sophisticated rituals where held to honor the dead, who were depicted as fleshless beings.
With Christian evangelization during the Colony, the syncretism took place and it has continued until today. Although native calendars dedicated specific dates in August to honor the dead, around that time they started celebrating the Día de los Fieles Difuntos (Day of the Faithful Departed) in November, with all the icons and symbols from those lands. And so, sugar skulls, Christian crosses (the natives made salt crosses to symbolize cardinal points), saints and pan de muerto were incorporated.