With the holidays upon us, I’ve been thinking about the unique mixture of Christianity and ancient religious beliefs that make up the holiday traditions in Mexico. Prior to Spain colonizing the country, there were complex and deeply instilled belief systems in the indigenous Indian cultures, such as Aztec, Mayan, Inca and others. Specifically, they did not believe in a single almighty deity, but rather many different gods who needed to be placated and worshiped. If they incurred the wrath of one of them, terrible things would happen.
After the Spaniards began to rule the country, however, they embarked on an extremely aggressive crusade to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism. Unfortunately, they set about doing this using force and violence rather than education, and it became a matter of survival for the Indians to embrace the new belief system. But they didn’t completely abandon the one that was so deeply ingrained in their societies. The result was a blend of Catholicism and the ancient cultural traditions and beliefs of the indigenous population.
The Spanish conquistadors showed no mercy when it came to insisting the indigenous people adopt their religion, and the Indians responded by finding ways to pay homage to the Christian god while still appeasing their own. Often this meant demoting their gods to saints, and practicing indigenous rituals under the guise of Christianity. Some of the more barbaric practices, such as human and animal sacrifice, were abandoned, but many other rituals were modified so as to appear within the parameters of Christianity.
One example of this confluence of beliefs is the pseudo-saint, Santa Muerte (Saint Death). Her image is depicted by a skeleton wearing a long robe and holding a scythe, which is thought to be associated with the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. Many Mexicans believe she has power and control over their daily lives, and mimic the Catholic ritual of praying to her spirit and asking for grace, though Santa Muerte is not associated with Catholicism.
Interestingly, now that freedom of religion is part of the federal law in Mexico, some of the older, more vibrant and involved rituals are coming back in popularity. It demonstrates the same loyalty and dedication to following ancient cultural traditions and paying homage to their ancestors that Mexican display in many other areas of their lives.