In the beginning of November the town of Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos celebrated El Día de los Muertos — or "Day of the Dead" — by holding its 3rd annual “majestic festival.” There were parades, dances, art, food, and skeletons everywhere. Oh, were there skeletons. The catrina, which is a skeleton donned in early 20th century aristocratic attire, was a popular satirical cartoon turned Day-of-the-Dead costume. People and mannequins alike dress up as this character and her image is ubiquitous.
To some, the catrina is a way to make fun of both the dead and the living, reminding us that we all find our way to the grave (a reality we are somewhat loathe to accept). The reminder rang loud and clear at this year’s celebration. The centerpiece of the festival was a magnificent catrina, confirmed to be the largest ever constructed. It stands at 48.1 meters tall (approximately 158 feet), composed of metal and fiberglass and dressed in over 200 square meters of fabric. This 5 ton beast was a pretty impressive feat for a small town. (The photo below shows the scale of the head before it was hoisted by a crane and fastened to the steel structure in the background. The eyes have actual lights in them.)
What with skeletons and talk of the dead—not to mention where the holiday falls on the calendar—it would be simple, though misguided, to think of it as a Mexican celebration of Halloween. In fact, the spirit of the two celebrations is remarkably different. Dia de los Muertos is at times festive, at times reflective, but always oriented around family and the memory of those who have passed. Needless to say, no one was gearing up for a fright fest or asking neighbors for treats. I didn’t hear any ghost stories or visit a haunted house.
The most important element of the Day of the Dead celebration is the altars where offerings are presented to the dead. These altars are beautifully decorated with elaborate designs of colored paper and candy skulls, adorned with fresh flowers called cempasúchil (a type of marigold). A photograph of the relative is often above the altar. The offerings of incense, food, and liquor are left for the visiting spirits of the dead. The festival this year featured a quarter-mile stretch of these altars on the main street, constructed under tents and lit with dozens of candles. The smell of burning incense was somewhat overwhelming.
One week prior I experienced another Day of the Dead observance in Guadalajara at Parque de la Calma, where boy scouts and girl scouts had constructed elaborate altars from wooden poles and rope, which had been weaved into webs. The guides explained the pre-Hispanic origins of the indigenous rituals and showed the substitution of pagan symbols for Christian ones. Once celebrated with several weeks of ritual feasts, dances, and sacrifices, the modern Day of the Dead is a result of the adaptation of these indigenous customs to All Souls Day. The celebration is an exemplar of the syncretistic nature of Mexican culture, which in this case is the blend of pre-Hispanic ritual conceptualizations of death and the Catholic understanding of what happens when we die.
As a result of its commercialization at this year’s festival, and several like it throughout the country, the Day of the Dead celebration loses some of its religious focus and instead captures a more universal idea: that there is an intimate relationship between the living and the dead. There’s a reason that this tradition has endured so many hundreds of years and a conquest (otherwise it would have been lost). I think we can chew on that idea for a little bit and glean something useful.
Editor's note: This glimpse into the Mexican culture is a reality for the missionaries and pastors who serve there. Thank you for remembering them in your prayers and for your faithful financial support.