During the Day of the Dead celebrations that take place in late October and early November in Mexico, the living remember and honour their dearly departed, but with celebration — not sorrow.
It is believed that during the Day of the Dead — or Dia de Muertos — they are able to commune with their deceased loved ones.
No one knows when the first observance took place, but it is rooted in agriculture-related beliefs from Mexico’s pre-Hispanic era, said Andres Medina, a researcher at the Anthropological Research Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
“In that mythology, the corn is buried when it’s planted and leads an underground life for a period to later reappear as a plant,” Medina said. The grain of corn is seen as a seed, comparable to a bone, which is seen as the origin of life.
Today, skeletons are central to Day of the Dead celebrations, symbolising a return of the bones to the living world. Like seeds planted under soil, the dead disappear temporarily only to return each year like the annual harvest.
Altars are core to the observance as well. Families place photographs of their ancestors on their home altars, which include decorations cut out of paper and candles.
The way Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead continues to evolve.
“Nowadays there’s an influence of American Halloween in the celebration,” Medina said. “These elements carry a new meaning in the context of the original meaning of the festival, which is to celebrate the dead. To celebrate life.”
In 2016, the government started a popular annual parade in Mexico City that concludes in a main square featuring altars built by artisans from across the country.
Paola Valencia, originally from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, said the residents of her hometown, Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, take a lot of time to build large altars each year. They are a source of pride for the whole community.
“Sometimes I feel like crying. Our altars show who we are. We are very traditional and we love to feel that they (the dead) will be with us at least once a year,” she said.