While in the United States death is a topic largely avoided, in many cultures around the world the remembrance of deceased relatives is marked by lighting candles and making offerings of food and drink. Such celebrations to honor the dead can be traced back to Egypt.
For the Aztecs, life was a path leading to death, which was present in their calendar, painting and sculpture in the figure of the goddess of death. Death was not a tragic event, but a part of life. The celebration of the ‘Day of the Dead’ in Mexico has strong roots in pre-Hispanic rituals. The ancient calendar included festivities in memory of deceased children in mid-August, followed immediately by ‘The Great Feast of the Dead’.
The Spanish missionaries let the natives keep these rituals, linking them to the Catholic observance of All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. It is this mixture of Christian and pagan traditions that makes Dia de Muertos so fascinating, making it one of the most important holidays in the nation’s calendar. The first day is dedicated to the memory of dead children, ‘little angels’, while adults are honored the next day. According to popular beliefs, the souls of the dead return to earth for one day during the year, after the sun sets on November 1. This has remained as a happy celebration, a day of remembrance and respect for the loved ones who have left this world, and at the same time a day when the living get together to enjoy good food.
In Labryrinth of Solitude by Nobel prize winner Octavio Paz, death is described as a familiar and friendly face to most Mexicans. Paz says, ‘Mexicans are familiar with death, joke about it, caress it, sleep with it, celebrate it; it is one of their favorite toys and most steadfast love. They look at it face to face, with impatience, disdain and irony’.
All over the country families visit cemeteries to clean and decorate the tombs of the beloved departed. Local merchants set up stalls outside the cemetery to sell flowers, food and drink. Mariachi bands are often hired to play the favorite music of the deceased and relatives sing along. Families also install memorial altars in their homes, with the intention of calling back the spirits of the dead. The altars are usually set up on a table, where different tiers are created by using boxes that are covered with white linens and cut-out tissue paper in bright colors, representing skeletons, flowers and birds, hung along the edge to form a lace-like border. The altar is then decorated with purple candles, images of favorite saints, pictures of the deceased, candy skulls with their names and a selection of their favorite food and drink, always including Pan de Muerto, a sweet bread shaped into a round loaf, decorated with bone-shaped pieces of dough and sprinkled with granulated sugar. This bread is available in every bakery in Mexico from late October to mid-November. The offering may also include cigarettes for a former smoker, sweets for those with a sweet tooth or a musical instrument for a former musician, for example.
Flowers are an essential element: bright yellow marigolds, still known by their Nahuatl name cempasuchil, are used to decorate the altar while petals are used to form a path on the ground leading into the house, across the patio and all the way to the altar. Cempasuchil (Tagetes erecta L), ‘the flower of the 400 petals’ has been used in religious ceremonies since pre-Hispanic times. It is also used to make small crosses that are placed near the corn fields to ensure that the crop will be good, and in doorways as a good luck charm. But it is not only a mystical flower: grown practically all over Mexico, it is also used as a pigment in fowl food, since it gives chicken skin and egg yolks a bright yellow color. Mexico is the main exporter of this product used in many countries. Flowers and leaves are used in folk medicine as a diuretic as well as for stomach and liver problems. The leaves are also used as an organic pesticide. During the months of October and November the demand for these flowers is so great that it is an important source of income for many farmers.
As a result of globalization, the country’s supermarkets are filled with plastic pumpkins, witches hats and masks to celebrate Halloween, a festivity that does not have any roots in Mexico. As a counter-reaction the government and private institutions have increased the promotion of altars displayed in schools, museums and other educational centers. Most guidebooks make special mention of these centuries old-traditions and especially of the celebrated all-night candlelight vigil in cemeteries of the island of Janitizio in Michoacan and the town of Mixquic, a suburb of Mexico City, which attract thousands of visitors every year. Mexico is a country full of traditions and mysticism and the celebration of Dia de Muertos, especially in small towns and rural communities, continues to be as important today as it was before Columbus discovered America.
Mari Angeles Gallardo is a f&w writer for the El Paso Times and the Mexican magazine Paula
Photo: Pan de Muerto(http://mexico.udg.mx/cocina/postres/Pandmuerto.html)