Friday, October 29, 2010

Day of the Dead

An Altar at a Public School in Playa del Carmen
The Day of Dead in Mexico is probably my favorite holiday.  It's much deeper, and a richer tradition than Halloween, which at best is fun with costumes and candies, and at worst is part of the ever more exaggerated commercialism and consumerism that has people buying jack-o-lanterns in July and Santa Claus costumes in September.

The Day of the Dead is something different.  It's a day to remember family and friends who have passed away.  There are no ghouls or goblins, but lots of memories.  For some people the memories are overbearing, and so they choose not to participate.

The basic idea is that on the nights before November 1 and November 2, people make "altars" for their lost family members, which include pictures of the person, candles and food, including mole (a dark, rich sauce made of chili, chocolate and many other ingredients), "pan de muerto," which is a special bread made for this season, the favorite food of the deceased, glasses of water, little sugar or chocolate skulls and burning incense.  Other favorite items can also be left, such as beer, wine or cigarettes.  A special flower for this occasion, the cempoalxóchitl (I don't know what it is in English, or even Spanish - this looks like an Nahuatl name to me) is placed on the altar.  Usually a special altar is made for any person who has passed away during that year, and one other combined for all others from past years.

November 1 is dedicated to children who have passed away, and November 2 to adults.  The traditional belief is that the souls of the dead will come to visit the altars dedicated to them, and drink the water.  This is also the reason for leaving their favorite items.
Pan de Muerto

One of my wife's great aunts claims that she actually saw the procession of souls, in the form of lights, leaving the cemetery entering their respective homes; she says she heard their voices as well.  Very few people have had experiences such as this one, but many people do believe that the souls come to visit.

There are different traditions throughout the country.  The only one I have experience directly is that of the state of Morelos in a village on the edge of Cuernavaca, called Ocotopec.   Many homes are open to the community to come and pay respects to the deceased, and offer consolation to the family.  Homes which are open will offer visitors tamales and a hot fruit punch, made with sugar cane, apples, hibiscus, tamarind and some other small fruits.  Some have music or bands, if music was really important.  Visitors leave a long white candle for the deceased, which are later lit, with the idea of lighting the way for the spirit.

The same night that the altars are placed, family members will go to the cemetery to accompany the deceased, often singing songs or praying.

A Very Decorated Sugar Skull
I clearly remember visiting one man's altar, which had been placed in the village church by his brother.  While the altar was relatively simple, the elderly man spent a good deal of time telling us about he life of his brother; it was shortly after my arrival in Mexico, so I didn't understand much, but I was impressed by the time and dedication of sharing part of his brother's story with us.

I also remember the tamales and punch from the homes we visited - they were delicious!  More importantly it was incredible to see the participation of so much of the community.

Most important to me was the significance of the entire holiday; the celebration of the memory of close people.  I believe that this tradition sharing their memories with the community can help people with grief.  Sometimes it is a personal experience, and the altars are private. For some people this can be more helpful.

I'll write more about the Day of the Dead between now and November 2.
Click here to read about some traditions throughout Mexico.

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