11/01/2011 12:39 pm ET Updated Jan 01, 2012

A Brief 'History' of Day of the Dead

"Sweet skulls, sweet skulls, crystal sugar candy skulls. Sweet skulls, sweet skulls. Tell me your name, I'll give you a skull" (The Halloween Tree, Ray Bradbury, 1972).

The day of the dead is one of our most beloved traditions in Mexico, surpassed only by that of electing crooked politicians and watching TV content for the mentally sedated.

When the Spaniard conquistadores came to Mexico in 1519, the Nahuas, Mayans and Aztecs, had been honoring the dead for more than 3,000 years.

From the Nahuas worldview, death was conceived as a transition between life on earth and the afterlife in the presence of the Gods. And continuous creation of the universe depended on mankind and from that vital energy released through sacrifice, penances, wounds and death; rituals that freed human blood.

[These pre-Hispanic gods must be gorging with the bloodshed in Mexico these days, sponsored by the war on drugs. I mean, 50 thousand killed in the last 5 years, and guess who is providing the gunpowder? No, not a videogame boys and girls.]

Though death was celebrated at least on four different months in an Aztec calendar year, there were two main ones: Tlaxochimaco devoted to children souls celebrated close to august; and two weeks later the Hueymihcailhuitl that honor the grown ups. The rituals depended on the nature of the deceased or the conditions of his/her death.

Suffice to say that when the Spaniard folk got to town and witnessed the 'controversial' rituals of the native festivity for the dead, they went..."Holy mother of ..." nuts. The Franciscan monks could not believe their eyes when they saw all the skulls decorating the altars, the tombs, the sacrifices, and so on. Consequently, the Spanish conquistadores decided that they "must do something to stop with this inhumane practices in the Nueva España".

So after burning some indigenous royal feet in order to transfer some capital gains to the Spanish crown (gold), raping some Aztec women, and killing 6,000 husbands, wives and children in less than 5 hours they went to talk with the chief of the tribe about this business of the celebration of the dead. And the conversation must had been something like this:

--We, the subjects of Carlos V, strongly believe that you must immediately cancel your Day of the Dead festivities --says the Spanish conquistador.
--What does this smelly bearded man is saying?
(The chief of the tribe asks his slave translator.)

--He said that we must stop honoring the dead.
--Tell the smelly bearded man to go F...himself.
--The venerable Pipiltin says that we are open for suggestions but we wish to keep our millenary tradition alive --says the slave in a courteous tone.

The Spaniard then turns to Fray Diego, the Franciscan monk, for support. The monk reminds him of the importance of taking any opportunity to Christianize the aborigines, but he also mentions that Spain itself has a long tradition of honoring the dead.

--In Spain we have a similar tradition in November. We believe that during "All Saints" the souls return to visit and share bread us. We prepare their favorite foods to show them our love and prevent their rage. And in some towns in Asturias people don't use their beds that night so the souls can rest from their long journey --the Spaniard says solemnly.
The slave had translated so far every word, while the chief keeps looking the Spaniard straight in the eye.
---Where in the world is Asturias? (The chief is clearly annoyed)
--Tell this iron head wimp that we will not stop honoring our dead, and that he can go and piss off somewhere else. And for all the Gods sake, tell him to go take a bath!

--The venerable Pipitlin wishes to have your ideas in writing --says the slave-- so he can give them all due consideration.

The Spaniard was confused; he did not have the slightest idea where that came from. Again, he turns to Fray Diego for help. The monk then had an epiphany: perhaps it was a bit odd to ask for a cancellation of the festivity. What if, instead, they propose to move the dates of the indigenous celebrations to correspond with the festivities of the Christian calendar?

The idea sounded brilliant to the Spaniard. It seemed to be the perfect starting point for conversion efforts. Christianity was on the right path.

The slave translated again to a very wary chief. He did not trust the invaders, and he certainly did not trust their sudden good faith approach.

--Tell the bearded stinky bastard, that we are keeping the skulls.

Since then November the 1st is the festivity dedicated to the children, and November 2 to the rest of the dead kind. And what we know now as the Tradition of the Day of the Dead is a hybrid with both pre-Hispanic and Spaniard roots, we kept our skulls and they introduced the cross. Though now our skulls are a high calorie sugary version of the original calcium item use by our Aztec ancestors.

My family is from Jalisco, the capital of tequila. This is why our altar to honor the dead is overpopulated with pictures of drunk drivers, surrounded by cempasuchil and "papel picado", Red Cross memorabilia, and lots of empty bottles of the sinister liquor. And yes, we loveeee our sweet skulls!