The Day of the Dead is probably the most famous Mexican festival, but what many people outside Mexico don’t know is that it is actually officially two days: 1st and 2nd November, and often starts the night before when the souls of deceased children return to visit their families, with the souls of adults returning on the following day, and all the souls coming together on the 2nd. However, in many parts of Mexico it takes place over several more days, beginning on the 28th October.
In this version, each day is dedicated to the memory of those who died in different ways, with the exact correspondence of each day varying slightly from place to place within Mexico. October 28th is dedicated to the memory of those who died in accidents, and in some areas also to those who were murdered, whilst in other regions it commemorates those who drowned. October 29th is set aside for children who died unbaptised and so remain trapped in limbo, although in some regions these are remembered on the 30th or 31st, and the 29th is dedicated to those who drowned, or altenatively those who died in accidents.
The 30th commemorates either the children in limbo, or women who died in childbirth and people who died of old age, whilst the 31st may be dedicated to children in limbo or to murder victims or suicides, or to the souls of those who die of old age. Then on November 1st it is time to commemorate either those who died as adults, or all souls together. Usually November 2nd is the day to celebrate all the deceased together.
So, why such a strange and confused system? This is actually due to the continuation of an ancient tradition from Aztec mythology that has survived in somewhat garbled form. For the Aztecs there were several possible locations for the afterlife, and which one you went to depended not on your moral behaviour in life, but simply on how you died.
Tlalocan, the watery paradise full of trees and flowers, ruled by the Rain God Tlaloc, was the first paradise, and received those who drowned or were killed by lightning. Tonatiuhichan, or Ilhuicatl-Tonatiuh dwelling place of the Sun God Tonatiuh, was the highest paradise and welcomed warriors who died in battle, women who died in childbirth and the victims of ritual sacrifice. Chichihualcuauhco “Place of the Breast Tree” was where the souls of babies went, to drink milk from the breasts that grew like fruit on this tree, before being reincarnated on earth. Mictlan was the common underworld, ruled by Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancíhuatl, Lord and Lady of the Underworld.
There were in fact several more afterlife locations, but these seem to have been lost along the way. Nevertheless, all of Mexico celebrates the souls of dead children and dead adults on separate days, and pays their respects to Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl at this time of year.
Chris Pollard lives and works in Mexico. He gave me my Santa Muerte statue as a gift for which I am grateful.