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DIA DE MUERTOS, DAY OF THE DEAD

You can find photographs from The Day of the Dead under "Colour Images", "Feasts and ceremonies"

Día de Muertos is one of Mexico's most important festivities and is celebrated almost all over the country. A visitor to Mexico might experience Día de Muertos as quite a bizarre event. But the festivity is manifested in many different ways, from a very religious, solemn and intimate festivity to nearly carnavalesque happenings.  

Día de Muertos has its origin in a mix between the pre-Columbian religions and the Catholicism brought by the conquerors.  Several of the pre-Columbian nations, with the Aztecs as the most known, practised a religion that included a strong and complex cult of the dead and of death.  In the Aztec religious calendar there were several festivities which included offerings of food and ceremonies related to the dead..

After the conquest in 1521 the indigenous temples were destroyed and the priests lost their role and power. But within the individual families many traditions were kept, especially in remote villages. Many Spanish missionaries give witness how the Indians held on to their religious traditions, often under a Christian cover. Scientists have later pointed out that many of these beliefs still exist in our days, the term "Idols behind altars" is often used in this context.

The festivity of Día de Muertos goes on for several days and can take many forms in different regions and villages. In indigenous, or tradition-bound mestizo societies it is a very solemn, deeply religious feast. In the indigenous villages it does also have a strong collective impression, and is an important factor in how the indigenous identity is created and maintained. Another form are the events resembling festivals, which actually had their beginning already in the early 1800, when a public feast was organized on Dia de Muertos on the large square Zocalo in Mexico City. This was repeated annually under the whole nineteenth century. At the end of the century Día de Muertos got a third expression; an intellectualized manifestation, with large ofrendas, offerings, in museums and other public environments, where the  Mexican handicraft is exposed in all its colourfulness.

Under the revolution 1910 - 1920 Día de Muertos became a part in how the enormous loss of lives was handled. The feast has also been strengthened in a search for Mexican identity and has in later years been encouraged as a counterweight to Halloween and the US influence.

Even if the feast can take many different forms the following description can be seen as a general norm for a tradition-bound indigenous or mestizo family.

In the homes an ofrenda, an offering of food and drink to the souls that are coming to visit is arranged, decorated with flowers (above all the yellow Cempasuchil, lat. Tagetes erecta) and fruit. In many homes there is a permanent altar with figures of saints and other religious symbols and the offering is then put there. The graves in the  graveyard are also decorated with flowers.

On the 31st of October the souls of stillborn children are expected. The 1st of November come the souls of dead children and the food the child liked is put on the ofrenda, also some favourite toy and maybe a portrait. The decorations on la ofrenda and the grave includes white flowers as a symbol for the child's innocence. In many villages live music is played to please the souls of the dead children, it is thus not for the grieving relatives.

The night between the 1st and the 2nd of November the souls of dead adults are coming to visit and  food for adults is then placed on la ofrenda, maybe also cigarettes, beer and tequila. It is common that people hold vigil at the graveyard during the night; whole families sit around the graves, chatting and remembering the dead. They bring food for themselves and the souls. The belief that the souls of their dead relatives really have been visiting is very strong. The food looses its taste and aroma during the night, the souls have absorbed it.

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