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  • Writer's pictureFromTheMayan Team

The Day of the Dead: A Mayan Tradition that Celebrates Life with Food, Dances, and Skull Masks

Wooden skull masks take center stage when Guatemalans celebrate their Day of the Dead. These amazing, hand-painted pieces of Mayan art are placed on altars and are worn by revelers dancing in memory and honor of their relatives who have transcended into the spirit realm.

The tradition of Dia de los Muertos has an immense history that goes as far back as 1800 B.C. In Pre-Hispanic times. This centuries-old holiday was celebrated at the beginning of summer. When the Spanish arrived, the festival was aligned with the Catholic holidays of All Souls’ Day and All Saints Day.

Today, Dia de los Muertos has evolved into various forms. In urban settings, the holiday gives emphasis on its social importance; in rural areas, the religious traditions are more pronounced. But regardless of the aspects the Guatemalans focus on, the essence of the tradition has remained the same for millennia: to celebrate the second life of the dead.

A Unique Mesoamerican Legacy that Stands Out Among Mainstream Perceptions of Death

In Western societies, especially in the United States, trick or treaters wear the scariest Halloween masks they can find. Meanwhile, in Mexico and Central America, revelers of Dia de los Muertos don the most colorful hand painted skull masks they can craft.

If you’re wondering why this is so, there’s one misconception about the Day of the Dead that needs to be debunked: it’s definitely not the Latin American version of Halloween. Though these two events are both celebrated annually in November, with death as the common theme, the tradition and tone couldn’t be more different.

Originating from the old Celtic festival of the Gaels, Samhain, Halloween is all about warding off the terrors caused by spirits who creep through our world during this time of the year. It is believed that when harvest season ends, the walls between the world of the living and the dead become thin and porous.

To protect the harvested crops from being damaged by the evil spirits, the Gaels would light bonfires to scare the spirits off, or offer a seat at the dining table to appease them with food and drink. In the same vein, dressing up for Halloween came to be because people in the past believed that impersonating the bad spirits would offer protection from them. Even pumpkin carving was created to keep spirits away based on the Gaels’ terrifying superstition.

In a nutshell, Halloween is meant to be a hair-raising, spine-chilling time. Everything the participants do - from wearing costumes to pumpkin carving - is to protect everyone from the evil spirits who are out to get them during Halloween.

That isn’t the case for Latin Americans when they celebrate the Day of the Dead. In Guatemala, when this special day comes, it is believed that the souls of the spirit realm can visit the land of the living, not to haunt people, but to lovingly reconnect with their family and friends.

How Today’s Mayans Celebrate Dia de los Muertos from Yucatan to La Antigua

Aztecs and Mayans both treat death as the next stage of existence. In other words, when a soul leaves the body in death, it goes into another realm: an afterlife which can either mean rebirth, heaven, or the underworld, depending on who you’re talking to.

As such, the Day of the Dead unfolds into an exciting explosion of color and life that stretches for days. A stark contrast to the Halloween tradition of driving away spirits, Dia de los Muertos invites the souls of deceased family members to come home and eat the food offered by the living.

In Yucatan, where today’s descendants of the Mayans in Mexico and Guatemala live, the yearly tradition of Hanal Pixán is similar to Mexico’s Aztec-inspired Dia de los Muertos, with the exception of distinct Maya touches that are unique to the peninsula.

Here, people prepare a traditional Mayan dish called Mucbipollo. Meaning “buried baked chicken,” this giant chicken tamale is shaped like a cake and is served in banana leaves. It is cooked in an underground oven, which often symbolizes the burying of the dead.

Meanwhile, in the town of Pamuch, residents take the holiday a step further. They take small brushes and carefully clean the bones of those who have been dead for three years. Once they have finished this loving act, they wrap the bones in hand woven linens decorated with embroidery.

Back in Guatemala, in the towns of Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepequez, the skies are filled with the largest kites you can imagine, often measuring 40 feet or more. Guatemalans usually take a year to build these giant kites called barriletes, which represent a line of communication to guide returning spirits to their families. Once the kite festival ends, the kites are burned so that the dead can peacefully rest and return next year.

Another special tradition for Guatemalans is the preparation of a dish called fiambre, and this practice can be traced back to the late 16th century. A blend of many cultures, fiambre consists of vegetables that are native to Guatemala, olives and other delicacies that came from Arabia, and cured meats and smoked sausages that were introduced by the Spanish.

In La Antigua, the people lovingly clean the graves and vaults of their deceased family members before decorating them with pine needles, candles, and incense called copal com.

Native Mayans adorn the gravesites with yellow marigolds called flor de muerto, the flowers often seen on decorative skeleton musicians and wooden skull masks. By afternoon, cemeteries all over Guatemala are bustling with families celebrating their loved ones with liquor, traditional food, marimba music, and dancing.

All in all, the Guatemalans’ Day of the Dead demonstrates a beautiful tradition of long lasting love and respect for those who have already passed on. Throughout all of these life-affirming and heartwarming festivities, Guatemalans put on the main symbol of the celebration: the colorful skulls known in their language as calaveras.

Wooden skulls are placed along with the traditional food and drinks offered at the altar, and sugar skulls are made with the name of a deceased family member, which should be eaten by someone close to them.

In Northern Guatemala, in the town of San Jose Petén, the people practice an incredible tradition: the procession of the three sacred skulls, or las santas calaveras. These skulls are believed to be the skulls of ancient Mayan kings and priests. Anyone who asks for these skulls are obligated to accept the skulls for three years. In return, they will receive blessings pertaining to their health, marriage, and other aspects of life.

Finally, on the last day of the celebration, Guatemalans hold a special mass. During this event, they would build a path of candles that are dedicated for all the souls of the dead so that they may return to their resting places.

The Mayans’ light hearted look at death takes fear out of the inevitable; death is simply an extension of the cycle of life, just in different realms. To the Western mindset, skulls represent the morbid and the macabre. But to the Mayans, their calaveras serve as an important reminder of living life to the fullest and honoring the people who have passed on with love, courage, and a smile.

Finding Wholesale Mayan Skulls and Skeleton Art

In Mayan tradition, calaveras are seen as joyous symbols rather than mournful figures. Through these incredible pieces of folk art that have been around for a millennia, Mayans can reconnect with the souls of their deceased loved ones during the Day of the Dead.

If you want your own authentic wooden calavera hand-painted and crafted by Guatemalan artisans, you’ve come to the right place. Handicraft Products La Selva, S.A. (From the Mayan People to You) has been working with Mayan artists since 1986 to give the world access to Guatemala’s beautiful, traditional handicrafts.

Our expansive catalogue features vibrantly detailed Mayan skull masks, floral-themed skeleton musicians, sugar skulls, and skull keychains for a truly unique Dia de los Muertos keepsake that will leave your guests wondering where you’ve found such a unique item. For more information, contact us.

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