Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Days of the Dead

Tomorrow is Halloween, what I consider an imposition from the north pushed by chain stores here eager to sell costumes to children. Shortened from Hallowed Evening, Halloween is just the build up to the days traditionally celebrated in Mexico--All Saints Day on November 1st and and All Souls Day on November 2nd. Here both days are called the Days of the Dead--Dias de los Muertos. You know they are approaching by the mounds of marigolds, special breads, and sugar skulls abundant in markets.

In Christian tradition All Saints Day honors all saints, known and unknown.  All Souls Day is one on which to assist through prayer the souls of the deceased who have not yet achieved purification and are still in purgatory. 

While that's what the Church says, Mesoamerican tradition is quite different. Death is not the end of life, it is merely a transition.  Dias de los Muertos are days when the souls of the deceased return to visit with their families. Family members who have migrated away from their traditional home make their way back, just as the souls of the deceased return to where they were buried.  That’s why these are the busiest travel days in Mexico.

According to Johanna Broda, who has written extensively on the overlapping of Mesoamerican and Spanish rituals, "the dead make their appearance during St. Michael's fiesta on September 29, and share with their family members their happiness over the first corn cobs.  In this way the dead show their intimate link with the agricultural cycle and the welfare of the living." 

Early Spanish friars were successful in extending Mesoamerica's harvest celebration for another month to blend with the Christian All Souls and All Saints Holy Days.  You can't but give credibility to the idea that Days of the Dead are linked with a harvest celebration when you see an altar to the dead, be it an authentic family home altar or a tourism department sponsored extravaganza in which groups are competing for prizes awarded to the "best" altar.  Loaded with the foods that the deceased enjoyed in life, Mesoamerican crops are well represented.  You’ll find candied squash, tamales made from corn, turkey in "móle" sauce.  Rice and sugar cane arrived hand-in-hand from Spain, but strangely rice is not a common dish on the altars while four- or five-inch-long pieces of sugar cane are. European wheat is well represented in the fancy Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead).  In fact, bakeries usually do the best job of decorating their store windows with allusion to Days of the Dead. 

Though the underlying meaning is the same throughout Mesoamerica, the way the Days of the Dead are observed changes from one village to the next.  Don't be surprised if your Mexican friends each describe different ways of celebrating these days.  They are all correct.  Just listen and take it in with fascination.  The one constant throughout Mesomaerican is the use of the bright yellow cempasuchitl (marigold) to decorate tombs altars and walkways.  Yellow is definitely the color of days of the dead.

If invited to visit a home altar jump at the opportunity because it is very much a family observance and celebration.  As outsiders we don't really play a role in it unless we have deceased family members who are buried here. 

With that in mind, I invite you to accompany me to decorate the tomb of a dear friend of mine, John Spencer.  John has no family members in Mexico, yet his tomb has never been bereft of flowers on Days of the Dead.  His tomb will be decorated by friends of his in life as well as others who have come to be his friends through his lasting legacy to art and design in Cuernavaca. We will meet and decorate his tomb on Thursday with a design copied from a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, an artist he particularly admired.  We'll recreate it with marigold petals. 

If you would like to join us at The Church of the Three Kings in Cuernavaca, send me an email.  The more participants we have the grander the "painting" will be.  While we work, we'll be surrounded by the magnificent walls he designed. John Spencer was one of us -- a foreigner enticed by Mexico's charm who settled here.

For more about these holidays refer back to the very first Charlie's Digs in October 2010,  three in October 2011, and one in November 2011.  They’re all posted at <charliesdigs.blogspot.com>.

Last month in a column about Ivan Illich, another foreigner who has left his mark on Mexico, I told you I'd let you know the dates of the forum commemorating the tenth anniversary of his death.  It will be December 13-15 in Cuernavaca with a series of talks by an impressive list of speakers about Illich's thought and writing.  If you’d like to attend send me an email and I'll forward the registration form to you.

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