Catholicism in the Mexican Day of the Dead

Dia De Los Muertos

What began has an Aztec festival has since been fused with Catholicism in the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos. Like many other syncretic religious rituals, Dia de los Muertos combines elements of disparate traditions and is also celebrated differently in different parts of Mexico. Moreover, expatriates living in the United States, Canada, and other countries observe the holiday. The original Day of the Dead did not take place on All Saint’s Day, but Catholic colonizers viewed the festival as being similar to Halloween. The Day of the Dead therefore takes place annually on November 1, with celebrations lasting more than one day. Traditionally, the Day of the Dead is for honoring ancestors and in most regards ancestor worship remains more of a feature of the celebration than the lauding of Catholic saints.

Imagery of skulls (calveras) and skeletons (calacas) pervades a Dia de los Muertos celebration. Parades are common. Individual families will also construct temporary altars for the Day of the Dead. Photos and memorabilia of dead relatives are placed on the altar along with food offerings. Therefore, the Day of the Dead is not a monolithic holiday; it consists of several different celebrations all joined together by a common theme.

The observed Day of the Dead celebration combined communal and private ceremonies. The events took place in a small city of about 20,000 people in Southern California with a predominantly Mexican population. The town’s socio-economic demographic is working class; abject poverty is not evident but buildings are dilapidated and there is little income disparity. Most of the residents of the community work in one of the three major industries nearby including agriculture, wastewater treatment, and light industries.

The Dia de los Muertos celebrations are for everyone. Age variation is striking and speaks to the essence of the holiday, which is based on the honoring of family lineages and multiple generations. Focus on the continuity of life is a central theme of El Dia de los Muertos. During the two-day event, the boundary between the living and the dead becomes a thin veil. Communication between the living and the dead becomes more possible during this time than during any other. A set of rituals and practices facilitate communication between the living and the dead. Communications with ancestors serves as a sign of respect, a means of honoring the bloodline and family traditions. Communication with ancestors is also as a way to achieve social harmony. For some, ancestors serve as the best mediators between the mundane and the spirit world. Ancestors may hear prayers and petitions and facilitate their manifestation.

An impressive number of children, adults, and seniors attended the community parades: an estimated three thousand individuals were present. Dia de los Muertos functions as both community and family-oriented. The culture embraces similar rituals and traditions, yet personal prayers, petitions, and ceremonial altars vary from family to family. The holiday is therefore both personal and collective and operates a comfortable space between an individual and his or her cultural identity.

All participants at the Day of the Dead celebrations we witnessed spoke either fully in Spanish or in a mixture of Spanish and English. Some evidence of encroachment from other cultures into the ceremony included the presence of technology and bottles of commercial beer. The Day of the Dead is an emblem of Central American culture. Special food items are served in abundant portions and in communal settings. The foods prepared especially for the Day of the Dead include sweets crafted in the shape of skulls and skeletons. Many of the special cakes are pan de muerto, which is a simple sweet baked good made from wheat flour and eggs. The pan de muerto comes in numerous shapes, sizes, and forms and most are decorated with colorful skulls and skeletons. These amusingly spooky-looking treats parallel the elaborate costumes and props used in the parade. The savory feast includes tamales, an array of grilled meats, fried fish, and several different sauces, stews, and soups. The enticing aromas not only satisfy the living but also the dead, and many foods are placed on the family altars. Food placed on altars is usually fruit and sweets, and are specially placed for specific ancestors. For example, a deceased grandmother who loved oranges will receive an orange; a deceased child might receive a cookie. Flowers, most of which are yellow, also accompany the food items and help attract the ancestral spirits. In some parts of Mexico, special treats are baked with pumpkin or chocolate. Regional differences determine how the Day of the Dead is celebrated in Central America.

Alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages are served abundantly, too. On family altars, water and hard liquor offerings are necessary. For the living, beverages are a matter of personal choice. Most of the men partake more liberally of the hard alcohol, whereas many of the females drink water, soft drinks, or beer.

In spite of the imagery of skulls and skeletons, the mood of the Day of the Dead parade and after-parties is highly festive because the celebration welcomes ancestral spirits rather than scaring them away. Comedy and laughter are omnipresent during the Dia de los Muertos rituals, and many of the deceased are affectionately teased. For example, relatives will mock or make fun of behavioral or physical quirks. The teasing is done in an attempt to bring the worlds of the dead and living closer together: to include the dead as a part of the celebrations that take place in their honor. Deceased ancestors are viewed as being spiritually present for the two-day event. They are remembered and respected as well as revered.

However, on a few occasions festivities included solemn moments of prayer and worship. The solemnity is reserved for the private family worship that takes place around the house altars, which are erected temporarily for the Day of the Dead. Tears fall in private; recent deaths may trigger emotional responses to the meditation on human mortality. The Day of the Dead holiday brings consciousness of death into the public foray, encouraging frank and honest discussion of mortality. Fears are faced squarely within the comforting and nurturing place of the community.

The parade is a continual procession of people in costume or holding up props painted with bright colors. Participation in the event is open, and outsiders are welcome. The Day of the Dead is a multisensory experience that includes not only gustatory and visual delights but also aural and aromatic ones. Music, incense, and flowers all permeate the air especially during the procession through town. The musicians play various types of songs with different instruments, and the music is both percussive and melodic with periodic horn and vocal breaks. Dances are elaborate and performed towards the end of the parade and well into the evening. During the procession, dancing is loose and not structured, whereas more formal dances take place later. Those dances differ depending on the region of Mexico in which they originate. While the trained dancers perform, onlookers can move and dance as they like. In this small California community, participants were from different parts of Mexico.

Many Dia de los Muertos celebrations merge Catholic and pagan belief systems. Crosses are present on many family altars, on parade floats, and on various other decorations. Some participants in the Day of the Dead celebrations walk with the procession carrying rosary beads; others seem devoid of connection with Catholicism altogether. Priests participate in the event without any qualms about how the festivities might be considered pagan in the eyes of the Church.

Observing the Day of the Dead encompasses the personal, familial, and community realms. All community members participate in certain aspects of the holiday like the processions and parades. Processions sometimes lead to the local cemetery, where relatives continue to ridicule the power of death over life. The theme of the Day of the Dead is impassioned living. The Day of the Dead is a time during which life is celebrated. Ceremonies know no boundaries between rich and poor; in fact, the Day of the Dead creates a flat social structure in the community if just for the two days. Persons in power such as the mayor of the town march alongside farmers. People and families who are not otherwise friends embrace and laugh together.

The role of the Day of the Dead in a modern expatriate community in California is complex. First, the ceremony is a palpable bond between the immigrant community and the country of origin. The annual celebration is one of the most meaningful ways this group of Mexican immigrants remains connected to its geographic and cultural ancestry. Second, the ceremony bonds together what might otherwise be a disparate group of immigrants. Many of the migrants in this town are from the same regions in Mexico but few are from the same villages and many are in fact from remote regions in which different dialects are spoken and where indigenous Mayan rituals predominate the cultural landscape. Therefore, the Day of the Dead is a means by which this California town creates and maintains community solidarity and social networking. Third, the Day of the Dead celebration serves a strong psychological and spiritual function by helping family members cope with loss and death, ponder their life trajectories, and become more cognizant of their ancestors and their personal sacrifices.

Works Cited

Dia de los Muertos.” AZCentral. Retrieved Nov 30, 2008 at

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).” Northern Notes. Retrieved Nov 30, 2008 at

Herz, May. Day of theDead. Inside Mexico. Retrieved Nov 30, 2008 at

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