It comes to no one’s surprise when hearing that one of the ways Christianity spread was by using parallels found between the monotheistic religion and pagan holidays in order to make the conversion of pagans to Christianity a bit easier. One example is Christmas, the day Jesus Christ was born — or not. In fact, the Catholic Church made December 25 a religious holiday in order to possibly replace the Germanic pagan holiday jól, or Yule. Another example is how Samhain was changed into Halloween, the day before the two religious holidays All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Then we have Día de los Muertos, a holiday originating in Mexico, but celebrated throughout most of Latin America. Despite sharing the same days, Día de los Muertos is not the same as All Saints Day and All Souls Day; it is not even what some would mistakenly call the “Mexican version of Halloween.” It is a holiday on its own; a day where we celebrate and honor those who have passed with ofrendas, food, cleaning and decorating loved ones’ gravesites, flowers, etc. However, it is important to know the indigenous origins of this holiday.
Día de los Muertos is a fusion of traditions from both the Nahua peoples and the Catholic Spanish. The celebration is typically celebrated on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, although certain regions may include Oct. 31, which really makes it Días de los Muertos. As stated before, it coincides with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. While there are the obvious similarities between Día de los Muertos and Christianity, the indigenous influences may be a little harder to catch. Among the early Nahua peoples (before they were conquered), they had festivals celebrating their dead and believed the goddess Mictecacihuatl presided over the festival. Mictecacihuatl is the Aztec goddess of death and ruler of the underworld alongside her husband, Mictlantecuhtl, some of her duties include guarding the bones of the dead and governing over the festivals of the dead. “Festivals of the dead” sound a bit similar to Día de los Muertos, right? However, the festival in which the Nahua peoples celebrated Mictecacihuatl and her husband was in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, which, in our calendar is basically late July and early August. The Spanish conquistadors changed the date of this festival and other festivals and rituals to honor the dead to correspond with their Christian holidays. Another connection between Día de los Muertos and the Nahua traditions for honoring the dead is food offerings. Family members of the deceased tend to leave offerings of food and water, as well as tools to help assist their loved one in the difficult journey to Mictlán (the underworld).
Understanding and recognizing the indigenous origins of Día de los Muertos is important in order to keep the Nahua cultures from becoming forgotten in the past; it also brings a deeper meaning to the holiday celebrating the dead. Rewriting history, or even cultural rituals and holidays, to suit one group of people over others is never okay, and can often leave certain cultures nearly extinct due to lack of practice and forced integration. In Mexico, you can still see indigenous influences in certain cultural and religious practices due to the indigenous peoples refusing to allow the Spanish conquistadors from completely destroying and eliminating their cultures, resulting in the blending of cultures, like with Día de los Muertos. So if you are celebrating Día de los Muertos this year, be sure to remember how this holiday does not only come from the Spanish, but also the Nahua peoples who fought to keep their cultures alive in rebellion against the invaders. This holiday was never meant to be some kind of aesthetic, or seen as another version of Halloween, or even to be trademarked and exploited by some American, money-grabbing company with no regard for other people’s cultures. Día de los Muertos is the day we honor the dead and celebrate the life they lived.
Additionally, as we enter the month of November, let us not forget that we are also entering Native American heritage month. However, just because there is only one month dedicated to Native Americans doesn’t mean you can forget about Native Americans every other month. Throughout this month, and all other months, raise awareness on issues Indigenous peoples face every day, support Indigenous business owners and artists, and recognize the influence of Indigenous traditions and holidays. After all, there may be some American holidays and traditions that have indigenous origins/influences like with Mexico’s Día de los Muertos.
Don’t forget to attend Whittier College’s Día de los Muertos event on Nov. 2 at 11:00pm in the Upper Quad.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Eduardo Dorantes / Unsplash