The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it,
sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.
— Octavio Paz (1914 – 1998)
Nobel Laureate for Literature, 1990
In many parts of Mexico, the Day of the Dead is observed on more than just one day. Starting around the 28th, souls who have crossed the veil begin returning to visit. According to Waverly FitzGerald, the first to arrive are the accidentados (the souls of accident victims). In some locations, other days are set aside to especially honor those who have died in other circumstances.
Although more generally observed on Nov. 1 and 2, the Days of the Dead are an ancient practice rooted in pre-Christian Aztec traditions, believed to go back at least 3,000 years. Although the Spanish invaders attempted to transform this joyous celebration to a somber day of prayer reflecting on the tragedy of death and the saints and martyrs, the people of Mexico never fully accepted the early priests’ ideas.
Instead, the Aztecs had always honored their dead with joyful celebrations tied in with the harvest season. Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the indigenous people viewed it as a natural continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.
The church was obliged to cooperate, so All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day have now evolved into the celebrations that today honor the dead with color, candles and joy.
In some places in Mexico, in rites that are somewhat reminiscent of the last day of the Thesmophoria, today would be the Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents), also called Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). Again, in other villages, this is rolled into the bigger celebrations on Nov. 1 and 2.
These festivities for the remembrance of deceased children were called Miccailhuitontli (Little Feast for the Dead) in the ancient calendar. In the older Aztec mythology, infants go to the fourth heaven, where a tree drips milk from its branches. They wait there for a new life, after the present world has been destroyed.
Nowadays, it is believed that children, having lived for too short a time to fall into sin, go straight to heaven. The death of a child is not a catastrophe, for the child becomes an ‘angelito,’ and is a gift to the family, becoming a personal intercessor with God.
Offerings for little ones customarily feature traditional wooden or tin toys, along with sweets and a cup of atole or else milk.