by Mary J. Andrade
In Mexico once a year, the living and the dead get to converse. Inspired by the belief that death is a transition from one life to another, during the last days of October and the first days of November they chat.
The occasion: the country’s Day of the Dead celebration.
Differing from the Roman Catholic-imposed ritual to commemorate the widely celebrated All Souls’ Day, the custom established by pre-colonial Mexican civilizations blends indigenous and Catholic beliefs. It’s a happy and colorful celebration where death takes a lively, friendly expression.Indigenous people believed that souls did not die. They continued living in a special place called Mictlán. There the spirits rested until the day they could return to their homes to visit their relatives.
Before the Spaniards arrived, the natives celebrated the return of the souls between the months of July and August. The Spaniards changed the festivities to Nov. 2 to coincide with All Souls’ Day of the Catholic Church.Now two celebrations honoring the memory of deceased loved ones take place: On Nov. 1, the souls of the children are honored with special designs in the altars, using the color white on flowers and candles. On Nov. 2, the souls of the adults are remembered with a variety of rituals.
The Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day, is referred to differently in some of the states. For example, in Yucatán it is known as Hanal Pixan, or the path of the soul through the essence of food. In the highlands of Michoacán, it is known as Jimbanqua or the party honoring the people who died that year. In San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo and in the southern part of Oaxaca it is known as Xantolo.
Whatever name is given, this is an ancestral tradition that blended with Catholicism to create a special time and space to honor loved ones by providing them an ofrenda, the fragrance of the flowers, the light of the candles, the aroma of special foods and the solemnity of prayers.It is also a time to make fun of death through “calaveras,” poetry allusive to a particular person, generally politicians; sugar, chocolate and amaranth skulls which are given to one another with their friend’s name so “they can eat their own death,” and special crafts allusive to different aspects of the living, with skeletons representing daily activities.
Preparations start on the third week of October with the harvesting of the cempasuchitl flower, also known as the flower of the twenty petals or the flower of the dead. It is sold in the marketplace or Tianguis, where the family buys everything for the altar.
They will place fruits, vegetables and special dishes prepared for the soul to enjoy the essence of the aroma of the food.On Nov. 1 in many towns the ritual of the Vigil of the Little Angels takes place in the cemeteries, particularly in the islands of Janitzio and La Pacanda in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacán. Little girls 6dressed in satin blouses and colored skirts, white stockings and shiny shoes are the center of this ceremony. This is the way the tradition is passed down from generation to generation.On Nov. 2 the souls of the adults are honored in their homes with decorated altars. Each state has different styles but all represent a place of spiritual communion. In many towns the cemetery vigil lasts the whole night of Nov. 1. In others it is done during the day. Many combine prayers with the sounds of the trumpet playing a tune with a mariachi band. Ritualistic dances are also included in some celebrations.
Day of the Dead is a time of reflection about the meaning of life and the mission one needs to fulfill. Death in many situations imparts a feeling of pain, particularly for those who do not know the purpose of their path on this earthly plain. For others, death is transcendence, transformation and resurrection. During the celebration of Day of the Dead all those feelings and beliefs come together in a season that brings to life the memory of the loved ones.
Mary J. Andrade has been researching the celebration of The Day of the Dead in Mexico for 20 years. She has published eight books on the subject, the latest being “Day of the Dead. A Passion for Life.” Visit her blog at www.dayofthedeadblog.com or Web site at www.dayofthedead.com or www.diadelosmuertos.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org). ©2007