How Commercialization Over the Centuries Has Transformed the Day of the Dead | Religion


As a Mexican-American celebrating Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in late October and early November, I have noted a growing concern in recent years that the holiday is increasingly commercialized.

Indeed, for those who consider the holiday to be sacred, it is shocking how mass market it is now. The evidence is everywhere. Target’s holiday aisles are filled with inexpensive Day of the Dead crafts in October. Halloween stores sell Day of the Dead costumes. Nike makes Day of the Dead shoes. California and Arizona sell Day of the Dead lottery tickets. Disney attempted to register the “Día de los Muertos” trademark prior to its 2017 film “Coco”. The examples follow one another.

The bottom line is that Día de los Muertos and its associated images, skulls and skeletons have become fashionable and are a great opportunity for companies to make a profit.

But as a culture and performance researcher, I know only too well that the truth is that Day of the Dead has always been commodified.

The roots of commercialization

The Day of the Dead is what anthropologist Hugo Nutini calls a syncretic holiday, which means that it is a cultural product of two different religious traditions that hybridized during the European colonization of the Americas.

The Day of the Dead brings together the annual festivals of the dead celebrated by indigenous pre-Hispanic cultures such as the Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec and Mixtec peoples. During Mexico’s 300-year colonial period, which began in 1521, these indigenous rituals were merged with the Spanish Catholic holy days for the dead known as All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1 and All Souls on November 2. .

Early Spanish Mesoamerican chroniclers such as Diego Duran and Bernardino Sahagún documented the Aztec festivals for the dead known as Miccailhuitontli and Huey Miccailhuitl. Duran wrote in the 1570s that he was amazed at how lavishly the Aztecs spent on supplies for their offerings to the dead.

Sahagún noted the overwhelming turmoil and financial activity that took place at the market in the capital of Tenochtitlán, present-day Mexico City, during the Aztec ritual festivals.

All kinds of food and goods were sold to citizens to celebrate the Aztec festivals of the dead. In this regard, there was not much distinction between commercial activity and religious activity. Religious holidays supported the market and vice versa.

The Catholic religion has also placed emphasis on commercial activity in relation to All Saints and All Saints. According to the Catholic belief of the 16th and 17th centuries, the majority of souls landed in Purgatory after death, rather than in Heaven or Hell. It was the responsibility of the living to help alleviate the suffering of souls in purgatory and help them reach heaven. This could be done through prayer or by making offerings to souls.

In Mexico, this meant that Spanish colonizers and newly converted native Catholics were tasked with directly purchasing church candles and other religious items that could be used in offerings to souls in Purgatory. Additionally, they could pay their local priest to say special prayers for souls during Día de los Muertos, a practice that remained in effect throughout the 20th century.

As the Day of the Dead has grown into a more popular and elaborate festival in Mexico, the associated business activity has grown. According to anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz, in the 1700s, Day of the Dead generated Mexico City’s largest annual market.

In fact, the squares and streets were so overwhelmed during the holidays with vendors, carts, stalls and makeshift markets that the local government called it “public disorder”. The mayor and city council of Mexico City ultimately had to control the Day of the Dead economic frenzy by promulgating laws and issuing permits to vendors. In other words, vacations had become so commonplace in Mexico City that they required government regulation.

Overall, Mexico’s markets and vendors sold holiday-related items – food, candy, bread, alcohol, candles, toys, and religious items. However, according to Lomnitz, in the 1800s, the Day of the Dead markets in Mexico City also sold clothing, shoes, furniture, tools, home decor, and more.

The wave of commercial activity on Day of the Dead also gave musicians, dancers and other artists the opportunity to perform in the streets for cash. In short, the Day of the Dead in Mexico City and other urban areas had both religious and economic significance.

Modern day commercialization

Marketing of the Day of the Dead was also quite pronounced in rural Mexico. A number of anthropologists in Mexico and the United States writing about the Day of the Dead in the early to mid-20th century pay particular attention to important holiday markets. They write that villages are turned into trade fairs where people gather from communities many miles away to buy and sell food, goods and services during the festival.

The scholarship of anthropologists Stanley Brandes and Ruth Hellier-Tinoco was instrumental in understanding how Mexico began to “sell” Day of the Dead to the outside world in the mid-twentieth century. Mexico’s tourism industry has started promoting vacations to American and European travelers as an “authentic” Mexican experience.

Many travel guides and brochures have highlighted the Day of the Dead as a cultural event that tourists can attend and buy folk art related to the holiday. Additionally, Mexico’s tourism industry has positioned some regional celebrations as the more “traditional” Day of the Dead festivals for tourists to explore.

Hellier-Tinoco showed how the Mexican Day of the Dead “sale” on the rustic island of Janitzio in the state of Michoacán transformed the small community ceremony into a spectacle attended by more than 100,000 tourists a year.

Considering all of this evidence, there does not appear to be a time when the Day of the Dead was not intimately linked to financial activities and profits. But the commercialization of the holiday also ensured its survival.

In 2019, I spoke to a grandmother who was building a Day of the Dead ofrenda, an altar with offerings for her deceased family that included candles, food, flowers, and festive decorations. For years, she had tried to convince her grandchildren to help her erect the altar of their ancestors, to no avail. It wasn’t until after watching Disney’s “Coco” and seeing sugar skulls at Target that they became interested in the holidays. Now they are eagerly helping their grandmother to build the altar.

Marketing is and has been transforming Day of the Dead. But, from what I’ve seen, it’s also giving a new generation the chance to be proud of their culture.


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