When the Saints Come Marching In
By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
If the thought of nighttime excursions to the cemetery, public altars to the dead on practically every street corner and sugar skulls with your name written on them in icing gives you the creeps, Mexico is probably the wrong place for you to be this time of year.
But if the reaffirmation of life through the celebration and mocking of death, flamboyantly dressed skeletons on parade and all-night, drunken revelries on the graves of the dearly beloved intrigues you, then you are in store for an exciting quintessential Mexican holiday this weekend, the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Day).
It is a truly unique and colorful experience, and not one that should be missed by foreigners living in Mexico.
The two-day festivities, which includes Nov. 1 (All Saints’ Day) and Nov. 2 (All Souls’ Day), is the result of a harmonious combination of ancient indigenous beliefs and Spanish colonial Catholic traditions, which makes for a truly original Mexican holiday.
Unlike Halloween, which is celebrated on Oct. 31 in the United States, the Day of the Dead sees death not as something to be feared, but rather as a time to celebrate the memory of those who have passed on to the afterlife.
Scholars trace the origins of the modern holiday to indigenous observances dating back thousands of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the Mictecacihuatl.
At first, the Spanish missionaries tried to abolish the practice of the celebration of death, but they soon realized that it is hard to wipe out a tradition that dates back over 3,000 years, so instead, they decided to embrace the holiday.
By tweaking the date on the Aztec solar calendar to accommodate the Christian calendar, they were able to adjust the Día de los Muertos to coincide with the Catholic All Saints’ Day holiday.
Considered a major holiday in Mexico – most offices give their workers at least one of the two days off – the celebration of the Día de los Muertos usually begins long before the start of November.
By mid-October, bakeries and markets through the country are filled with sweets and toys created with death as their theme.
Bake shops are piled high with pan de muerto, and there are sugar skulls and ghoulish papier-mâché skeletons on display practically everywhere.
Elaborate altars with bright orange zempasúchitl (marigold) flowers, plates of food, bottles of tequila, copal incense and photographs of deceased relatives.
On the actual dates, families gather in graveyards to spend the day at the tombstones of their lost loved ones.
The observance usually begins with solemn prayers and chants for the dead, but by the wee hours of the morning, most participants are happily toasting the health of the departed with a strong shot of tequila.
In some villages, entire populations dress up in masks and costumes to resemble their long-lost relatives and parade about the streets to give the deceased a moment of symbolic reanimation and life.
In others, all-night vigils are carried out in the local cemeteries, with lavish meals of the dead person’s favor foods served to the survivors in tribute to their immortal memory.
One of the most moving rituals is held on Janitzio Island on Lake Patzcuaro in the central state of Michoacán.
The ceremony begins with the Tarascan indigenous community gathering at dusk by the lake for a symbolic duck hunt with primitive spears.
After the hunt, the Tarascan women appear, bearing baskets of food and brightly lit candles to guide the hunters to the cemetery.
Even in Mexico City, where many seasonal practices and customs have fallen to the wayside, overshadowed in great part by European and U.S. imports such as Halloween and Santa Claus, you can still find places where the Day of the Dead holiday is observed and celebrated in much the same way as it was in colonial times.