All Saints’ Day (November 1), All Souls’ Day (November 2) and the Celtic prequel of All Saints’ (Hallows’) Day, Hallowe’en (October 31) celebrate the dead and usher in the harvest throughout Christendom. All Souls’ Day, or Dia de los Muertos, has enjoyed an astonishing surge of popularity in Mexico since 2000.
There is much speculation and many a theory about the indigenous roots of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. One popular idea is that it can be traced to Aztec worship rituals for Mictecacihuatl, “Lady of the Dead,” Queen of Mictlan. According to Aztec legend, Mictecacihuatl was sacrificed as an infant and married to Miclantecuhtl, king of the underworld, which she was allowed to leave once a year to return to the world of the living. The Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihuatl’s return with death festivals and traditional dances, to honor her for her protection of the bones that created life and to seek protection for those who died.
Extravagant all-night graveyard celebrations and watches take place in many parts of Mexico, such as Patzcuaro and Oaxaca. Many families take the opportunity to remember deceased loved ones by taking flowers to their graves. Home altars or ofrendas were set up in homes where fervent Catholic faith encouraged the belief that souls might materialize to eat the Bread of the Dead and drink their favorite tequila. Nowadays, even non-believers decorate their homes with ofrendas to celebrate the season and remember loved ones. Public altars for celebrities or beloved figures in a business or school are now seen often. They are a way of keeping this tradition alive.
One reason for the surge in popularity of the Dia de los Muertos is UNESCO’s 2008 inclusion of the Mexican Day of the Dead in the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” and in part because of the profit potential of transforming traditional practices into pop culture through modern advertising. Flowers for gravesites, food and beverage for dead and living, sugar skulls, and decorative cut paper are sold widely during the season, but there has been a recent proliferation of goods and services: manufactured costumes, professional Catrina face-painters, party venues, and knick-knacks manufactured in China. The 2017 Disney/Pixar film Coco increased international awareness of the festivities, romanticizing them with nostalgic stereotypes of Mexican life and culture.
There is another reason, a more sinister one, for the upsurge in the popularity of the Day of the Dead: a surprising increase since 2001 in the number of adherents to a leaderless cult, the worship of Santa Muerte. La Santa Muerte is a female deity of sorts, evolved from much older images of the Grim Reaper with a touch of various versions of the Virgin Mary. The skeleton image was enhanced by lithographist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), whose creepily playful late nineteenth and early twentieth-century drawings in turn inspired the elegantly dressed skeleton, known as a “Catrina,” among the crowd in Diego Rivera’s 1946-47 mural, Sunday Afternoon Dream in the Alameda.
Although the faithful in this cult represent a cross-section of Mexican society, it has become especially popular among drug dealers and other delinquents, who, with a mix of Catholic ritual and magic formula, request her blessing in life’s trials and tribulations as well as in their dubious enterprises. Many cultists consider themselves devout Christians, but Catholic hierarchy deeply disapproves of the cult.
On the positive side, keeping memories alive and reconciling the natural fear of death with acceptance of its inevitability, a celebration of the lives that make every death meaningful, and a touch of humor, music, and partying make life and death more bearable.