Eyes, ears and arms wide open. That’s how I celebrated my first Day of the Dead in Mexico on November 1st, 2019. I thought it would be interesting to explain how it is celebrated in my country, and the differences I noticed with the Mexican celebration.
HOW DO MEXICAN PEOPLE CELEBRATE IT?
In Mexico, the celebration takes place between October 28 and November 3, depending on the communities. The night from October 31 to November 1 is dedicated to dead children, known as « angelitos« , while the night from November 1 to 2 is dedicated to dead adults. None of these days are bank holidays.
The celebration of the Day of the Dead is almost 3,500 years old, so it already existed before the invasion of the Spanish conquistadores.
In pre-Hispanic times, several civilizations, such as the Purepecha, Maya, Mexica, worshipped their dead through various rituals. It was celebrated in the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar, which corresponds to August, and lasted a whole month.
The festivities were conducted by Mictecacihuatl, the goddes of Death, that nowadays we call « Catrina« . Under the Catholic influence, the festivities moved to November 1 and 2.
It is believed that on this day, a bridge opens between the world of the dead, the « Mictlán » (i.e.place of the dead), and the world of the living -yes, just as in the Disney film Coco. That way, the dead, whose souls are still remembered by their relatives, can live with them through their offerings.
Families erect colourful altars at home, which they decorate with orange flowers (the cempasúchiles), and fill up with pictures of the dead, as well as offerings, their favorite dishes, an object that was dear to them, incense, sugar skulls, bread of the dead…
However, the celebration is not so widespread in other parts of the country, as Lucina Ávila Rincón, who lives in La Piedad, emphasizes it.
« I grew up without that tradition, in Mexico City. […] My approach to it was the news. Here in La Piedad, there is a tradition of visiting the cemetery, of decorating graves with flowers, there are families who bring music and eat on their dead’s grave.«
AND WHAT ABOUT FRANCE?
I would like to clarify that the way we celebrate it in France is completely different from the Mexican tradition.
We celebrate our dead people during the « Toussaint », which corresponds to All Saints’ Day. Although the calendar marks it on November 2, we are used to commemorate it on the 1st, since it is a national bank holiday, that has its origins in Catholicism.
Nevertheless, many French people do not celebrate this day.
First, because of the distance from their families, since in France, territorial mobility is important and adults do not stay in their hometown with their families.
Another explanation may be the great variety of religions that are present in the country. Originally, it is a Catholic holiday, which explains why, for example, Protestants do not celebrate it. But little by little, it was integrated into the French culture and because of syncretism, today it is celebrated by people of any religion.
« In my family, we are Muslims, but we have made the Toussaint part of our habits. I have been able to see its evolution since the beginning of the 1980s, » said Djamel Achache, who lives in Paris.
Now that you are quite clear about how we commemorate it in France, let’s mention my experience in Mexico.
AT FIRST, I WAS SURPRISED
As soon as I arrived in the cradle of the Purhepecha civilisation, the ubiquity of the cempasúchil (marigold) left me speechless. Its name, from Nahuatl, means « flower of twenty flowers« .
The Mexicas considered that it looked like the sun, so they began to use it to accompany souls on their way from the Mictlan (world of the dead people) to the world of the living.
Their petals form a path in the streets, on the altars of the dead in the houses, among the graves… Even in wreaths of flowers on the heads of some people. The flower is used everywhere, and its color gives joy to the environment.
All of this contrasts with the atmosphere in my country.
In France, we usually put flowers on the graves in the cemetery, and that’s it. They are always chrysanthemums, because it is a flower associated with death and that resists to the cold weather. The ambiance is solemn and austere.
People wear dark clothes, as if they were mourning. It is frowned upon to be happy, since the day is dedicated to death, then you have to show respect. We do not bring food, since it is a moment of spiritual communion.
Astonished. It is the adjective that best describes my reaction when I went in the graveyard on the island of Janitzio and in Tzintzuntzan. It was one of the most spectacular experiences of my life. I never imagined that these places could be garnished with so much devotion ; that a place associated with death could give such an impression of light, joy and love. Of life, after all.
And as soon as the mariachi music rang in my ears, I felt carried away. As if I were no longer in front of graves, but in a popular festival. Some were dancing, some were drinking, others were painting their faces as skulls in a thousand colours and laughing together, lit by the many candles surrounding the graves.
In France, we usually gather the whole family in our hometown and share a meal, before going to mass in the evening. Then, we are used to visiting the graveyard and pray on our relatives’ graves. In addition to that, we also light a candle, to symbolize a peaceful and brightful life after death.
Everything is sadness, darkness, nostalgia, pain and coldness. I must admit that the winter weather doesn’t help.
So I was, at the sight of the altars full of little details, golden decorations, food, memories of the dead ; of the offerings on the graves, whether they are soft drinks or home-cooked dishes for the dead ; of the impressive crosses, the altars and the ornaments.
They represent the fruit of a common effort provided by each person of a family, or by the entire community. Each generation feels involved, and this is why the celebration is so beautiful both in substance and form.
At the end of the day, it’s a fundamental celebration of the “mexicanidad” (the Mexican identity), not just a cliché that we created abroad, and I was super happy to discover it.
There is a good reason it was named a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008!