Home :: The Day of the Dead in Mexico A Christian festival with an Aztec Heart

The Day of the Dead in Mexico A Christian festival with an Aztec Heart

By Diana McLeod

      When you think about it, it is remarkable how thoroughly the Spanish Conquistadores destroyed the Aztec culture when they invaded Mexico in the 1500s. A few hundred guys conquered thousands of people and destroyed their very rich culture and vibrant (if horribly bloodthirsty) religion. The Spaniards murdered the priests and the intellectual elites, burned every Aztec book they could find, and forced thousands to convert to Christianity. They destroyed every temple, and built churches right over the ruins. They did a very thorough hatchet job on Aztec cultural identity. Today, the visitor to Mexico has to look very carefully to find aspects of the ancient culture that still linger.

      The Day of the Dead festival was a stubborn survivor. When the people refused to abandon the Aztec festival that honored their dead, the Spaniards forced the celebration to move to Novermber 2nd, so that it would coincide with the Catholic celebration of “All Saints’ Day”. The festival became legitimate in the eyes of the Church, and the pagan altars were tolerated, so long as they were covered in Catholic crosses and images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

      Ironically, this was not the first time that the Catholic Church had created its own festival to cover up a Pagan one. All Saints’ Day was originally begun in order to smother the Pagan celebration of the Autumn Solstice in Europe. The Pagan celebration of Beltane was a time when the dead were said to walk the Earth. All Saints’ Day overtook Beltane, but it never really stamped it out entirely. The festival survived. Today, it is Halloween.

      MIXQUIC: The small town of San Andreas Mixquic has a reputation as one of the best places in all of Mexico to see the ancient Day of the Dead festival. In 2009, we decided to see it for ourselves.

      The problem was transportation. Mixquic was about 60 K from Mexico City, and there was no direct bus service. Nobody at the Mexico City hotels had thought to set up a tourist bus service, just for the day. We didn'’t want to pay for a one hundred mile taxi ride all by ourselves. Luckily, we struck up a conversation with another young couple at a restaurant, and they agreed to share a car with us. The four of us set out early in the morning, accompanied by a driver who was recommended by one of the hotels. He turned out to be a very nice guy. Unfortunately, he didn'’t really know where he was going. It was not reassuring when, at a highway gas stop, he spent about a fifth of his day’s earnings on a road atlas! We took a few wrong turns along the way, but local people were helpful in directing us. The road took us past Xochimilco, which is the last remaining part of the ancient lake that once filled the Mexico City valley. The lake still houses rafts of floating gardens, which once fed the huge city in Aztec times.

      Once we found Mixquic, it didn't take long to find the heart of the festival. Carnival tents, mobile restaurants, and souvenir stalls lined the streets leading up to the main attraction – the Catholic Church and its large cemetery. The local museum was right beside the church. It held a large exhibit on the history and practices of the Day of the Dead. Outside the museum was a large stone altar, constructed in Aztec style, with rows of carved skulls on all four sides. In the center was a cross, surrounded by a pile of human bones and skulls. The Church keeps anonymous remains that farmers sometimes turn up in their fields. Once a year they bring them out, just for the festival. Most of the remains are ancient Aztec, but one wonders if any of them are more modern…. ( Hmm, maybe I'’ve been watching too many police dramas on T.V).

      We saw many Day of the Dead altars, set up all over town. They all held an interesting mix of Aztec and Christian symbolism. Framed portraits of the town’s deceased were set out on the altars, along with offerings of bread, water, corn, fruit, herbs, and even whiskey and cigarettes. Skull candies made of sugar lay near real skulls. Christian crosses and pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe hung above the offerings, laying claim to the ancient festival. Copal incense burned near the altars, offering the dead the sacred smoke that once burned on Aztec pyramids.

      The Church itself was lined with altars. I couldn'’t help but speculate: had the Spanish torn down a pagan place of worship to build their church on? They did exactly that in so many places. Was the churchyard built over the former ceremonial square of an ancient town? We'’ll never know. Archeologists will never be allowed to dig on this sacred ground.

      The churchyard was full of people. Familes had come from miles around to pay their respects to their ancestors. Campesinos in straw cowboy hats shouldered heavy armloads of gladiolas. Young boys carried gallons of white paint and brushes, or buckets of soap and water to wash the tombs with. Elderly women with long braided hair and cracked eggshell faces brought baskets of food and long white candles. People covered their families’ tombs with flower blossoms, carefully arranged to form images of crosses or other Catholic iconography. The arrangements of cut flowers placed on the tombs were spectacular.

      There was also music in the graveyard. A local Mariachi band was playing. Families were hiring them to sing songs to their dead. The band surrounded a gravesite with music, as family members looked on. As I listened to the old Mexican ballads, I thought back to the days when Dave and I were professional musicians. We played some weird gigs, but at least we were hired to play for the living! (On the other hand, there may be advantages to playing for the dead. When they don'’t applaud, you don't have to take it personally.)

      But the Mariachis did have a live audience. A local T.V. crew was doing a piece on the Day of the Dead, and they were getting lots of footage of the Mariachis. The men were really hamming it up for the camera.

      I wish we could have stayed at Mixquic that night. The Day of the Dead is really just the preparation for the night. Families spend the entire night in the cemetery, eating, drinking, and singing songs. The entire churchyard would be ablaze with candles. Unfortunately, we would have to miss the real party. Our flight was leaving early in the morning.

      Luckily for us, when we returned to Mexico City that afternoon, there were other festivities in the Zocalo (the huge open square that is at the heart of Mexico City). The square was full of people, many of whom were in costume for Halloween. The most popular costume for women was that of “Santa Muerte” (Saint Death). This costume is similar to a “Grim Reaper” costume in our country, except that it has a female body.

      There was an interesting group of “Halloween protesters,” who were wearing traditional day of the dead costumes inspired by artwork from Mexico’s past. They wore clothing from 19th century high society, or antique village attire, and they all wore skull masks. The group all wore stilts, which elevated them well above the large crowd. This group was preaching to the crowd to preserve the traditions of the Mexican Day of the Dead festival, and not let it be swallowed up by the crass commercialism of American Halloween. They had the crowd chanting: "“Halloween NO! Day of the Dead YES!"”

      The Mexico City Zocalo is home to several dance companies who perform “Aztec” dances for the crowds. After each dance, they pass the hat. These dancers are really pretty good. Their costumes are spectacular. They wear huge headdresses, crowned with spectacular feathers, and Aztec style tunics, and leather cuffs on their wrists and elbows, which are covered in small bells. They are accompanied by drummers.

      On this day, they had added members to their groups. These characters were supposed to be the Aztec “priests.” The “priests” didn'’t dance. Instead, they set up day of the dead altars and performed ritual blessings for people. We watched intently, as Catholic parishioners walked out of the nearby Cathedral and headed straight over to kneel at the feet of the Aztec priests. The priests blessed the people with bundles of fresh herbs, copal incense smoke, and chanted prayers.

      Were their blessings truly fake? The kneeling people didn'’t seem to think so. Could it be possible that some ancient rituals survived the Conquest? Maybe, somewhere in Latin America, some of them have survived to this day, hidden from the Church, and passed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition. The idea certainly makes for some entertaining speculation.

      The Zocalo represents the layers of Mexico. The Spanish left their unmistakable stamp on the famous Cathedral and the Government buildings around it These magnificent edifices were built using stones looted from the Aztec pyramids that Cortez tore down. But underneath, in the corner of the Zocalo, excavations have revealed hidden Aztec pyramids that have remained buried until now. These relatively new discoveries reveal that the Spanish did not eradicate all signs of the previous culture. That culture lives on, especially on the Day of the Dead!


      Her name literally means “Saint Death.” Her body is female. She wears either a plain black robe, or a fancy black evening dress. Her face is a grinning skull, and her skeletal hands hold the scythe of the Grim Reaper. In the last decade, she has become a symbol of an emerging new cult of death in Mexico.

      There have been frightening changes in Mexico lately. Despite a huge push on the part of the government, the drug cartels and gangs seem to be getting the upper hand. Honest politicians and police officers live in fear for their lives. It is not safe to walk the streets of most Mexican Cities. People with money are terrified that their children will be kidnapped and held for ransom.

      This culture of fear is leaving many people in doubt of the Catholic Church. Prayer seems ineffective against the new wave of violence. Santa Muerte has become a new “Virgin Mary of darkness,” and she has stepped into the gap. Altars with her image are springing up all over Mexico. She apparently thirsts for blood, just like the old Aztec gods. National Geographic did a wonderful article on Santa Muerte earlier this year.

      Her origins are rooted in old traditions of the Day of the Dead. In 1913, a Mexican artist did a famous portrait called “Calavera de La Catrina” (the skull of Catherine), which was an image of a female skeleton in fancy society attire. Images of this well dressed cadaver abound. You can buy them in any marketplace that sells Day of the Dead images. The well dressed “Lady Death” has always been a popular costume.

      It was the drug dealers and gangsters who first changed this funny folk image into something more sinister. They changed her image into something dark and violent, and they began to worship her as a goddess. They promised her blood in return for her protection. Many believe that, when they do go to Hell, (and they assume that they will, if they have done violence), that their Goddess will remember them and be a bit merciful to them. Some Mexican prisons now have shrines to Lady Death.

      Shrines are even springing up in public places, in place of traditional shrines. She is such a perfect “evil twin” to the Virgin Mary that some Mexicans find it relatively simple to switch from one to the other. People pray, leave offerings, burn incense, and make deals with her. The bargaining is important. She will grant favors, but she extorts a heavy price for those favors. Promises made to her must be kept, or else. The National Geographic reporters speculated that, in some places, she is given actual human sacrifices, just like the old Aztec Gods.

      Are the old Aztec ways truly dead, or have they merely been buried under Catholicism for five centuries? Is this ancient, or is it new, or is it a combination of both? Whatever it is, Santa Muerte and her followers present a terrifying new challenge for the Mexican population in the coming decades.

      Thanks for reading! Diana

Click here to visit the Travel Story Archive and read more of Diana's stories from around the world!