Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Flowers scare the devil away

Yellow pericón flowers start blooming in mid-September in the fields around Cuernavaca.  Like clockwork, regardless of what the weather has been, they are always in bloom by September 28th.  You can go out on the highway and cut them yourself, or you can buy them on street corners or in the market.  They'll be sold everywhere in the state of Morelos today and tomorrow, but nowhere on Thursday.  The custom in Morelos, and bordering communities, is to make crosses out of pericón stalks and flowers.  On the night of the 28th, yellow crosses are placed over front doors of homes and businesses, and on automobiles, trucks, and busses. Upon putting up the new cross, the previous one, now a year old, and looking like straw, is taken down and burned or buried.  

They are called Saint Michael's crosses; Saint Michael comes down on the eve of his feast day (September 29) and blesses his crosses and the places where they are hung.  Urban lore is that the devil is loose on the 28th and St. Michael can protect the places where his crosses hang by using the cross as his make-shift sword to keep the devil at bay.  

Pericón, known as yautli in Nahuatl, and linked in people's minds to St. Michael's Day, is of the same genus -- tagetes -- as the cempoalxochitl (also zempasúchitl), or marigold, so characteristic of Days of the Dead.

St. Michael is one of two patron saints of Cuernavaca's Colonia Acapantzingo.  Its 16th century church -- right across the street from Emperor Maximilian's estate known as the Ex-casa de Maximiliano -- hosts an annual grand feria to mark the occasion.  Acapantzingo's other patron is Saint Isidore the Farmer, whose feast day is May 15.  San Isidro Labrador and San Miguel Arcángel bracket the Mesoamerican growing season.  The rainy season begins in late May and is about over by now in late September.   May 15 was when the farming implements and animals that pull the plows were blessed; September 29th is the beginning of the harvest season.  

Rural lore determines the formation of the pericón crosses to be in the shape of a Greek cross with all arms of equal length.  In addition to putting them over the doors to their homes, campesinos also place them at the four corners of their milpa.  Very probably the idea is of prehispanic origin with the cross being an emblem of the four cardinal directions.   Yet another aspect of syncretism is St. Michael took on Tlaloc's role as patron of rain.  September 29 became one of the important dates in the farming and ritual cycle associated with agricultural production and fertility -- especially rain and Mesoamerica's staple food, corn -- all under the cover of important Christian holy days.  

Although February 2nd, Dia de la Candelaria -- Candlemass Day -- was an important day in 16th century Spain, it took on much more importance in Mexico where campesinos not only take their images of the Baby Jesus to their churches to be blessed, but also know it is the day to bless the seeds they'll plant in May.  

May 3rd, Day of the Holy Cross, is set in the hottest, driest part of the year.  During the nine days before and after that important holiday crosses, which have been on top of hills, are brought down to the village churches to be repaired, painted, blessed and returned to their proper places on the hilltops.  Those are the days on which to pray for rain. Mesoamerican thought maintains that it is inside hills and mountains that water is stored.  From them come the clouds that deliver rain that nurtures corn.  June 24, St. John the Baptist's Day, is an appropriate day to offer thankful prayer for rainfall within the growing season. 

According to Johanna Broda, who has written extensively on Mesoamerican rituals and the overlapping of symbolism after the conquest, "the dead make their appearance during St. Michael's fiesta, 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."  

Broda, maintains that the agricultural cycle ends with the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, and points out that the profuse agricultural symbolism which permeates that festival is usually overlooked. 

I was especially pleased to be introduced to that idea by Broda since it was very late on a 28th of September that my wife's aunt Estrella Garro died.  The florist shops were closed.  It may have been very appropriate that we decorated her simple pinewood casket with bunches of pericón flowers -- the only flower available.   

If you're in or near Cuernavaca tomorrow evening, Acapantzingo will be a fun place to be.  Wherever you are in Central Mexico, be on the lookout Thursday morning to notice the yellow crosses all around you.

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