CELEBRATING DEATH

Mexican Style

By Samantha Ray 

 

dayofthedeadartOne of the popular songs of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 -1921 is “Valentina.” This woman is visited by her lover, who comes in great danger to see her. His last words upon leaving her are: “If I must be killed tomorrow, let them kill me once and for all today.” This shows how Mexicans, fatalists that they are, accept death uncomplainingly, but also bravely. They fraternize, play and joke with death even while they weep. In their blood is the spirit of adventure, first of their pre-Colombian ancestors, later of their Spanish conquerors.

The Day of the Dead, November 2nd, is a national holiday. For days before and after, death is everywhere present, leering invitingly from bakery windows, tianguis stalls, candy shops. Children are given miniature dangling skeletons, little coffins from which a skeleton jumps when a string is pulled, people offer friends a sugar skull with their names on it written with tinsel paper, usually the same color of the person’s eyes.

The most spectacular and very artistic manifestation of this celebration is the anahuacalis, or altars to the dead. In those altars, offerings are attractively arranged. Sometimes they are placed on the floor on a new petate (straw mat). More often they are placed on the table with the household favorite saint, covered with an especially nice cloth or one of those china paper rectangles perforated with lovely designs. Pictures of the dead are also on this table, the frames with garlands and wreaths around them. The arrangements are done with all flowers in season, but mainly zempasuchitl (a kind of orange marigold) which is the traditional flower of the dead. The offering includes dishes with maize, rice, beans and peas. Fruits and vegetables are intertwined forming designs.

The last artistic touch is the special candle for each dead soul. The artisans that make them, with beeswax, decorate the stick with lace and flowers, made of the same material. Some are so beautiful that it pains to light them. The celebrations really start the day before, All Saints Day November first, when the angelitos, dead children, are remembered. They do not have special offerings, only candles, some special dish of food or a toy, and are included in the offerings of the adults.

Every region of Mexico has its own way of celebrating, although there are more similarities than differences. One of the common practices is for those who are away from home to try and return before the first of November, to avoid the risk of meeting any of the souls on the lonely roads.

In general the people comport themselves seriously and keep their children from being too boisterous, admonishing them not to take food from the offerings in order not to incur the displeasure of the souls. Many make an effort to stay awake the nights the souls are in the town, and thus not fall prey to those who carry away the sleepy heads. Others, this is more frequent, go to the bars to enjoy themselves, drinking and gambling at the tables set up for the occasion.

Many people spend hours at the town’s cemetery. In cities and villages, anybody who goes to a cemetery, will see people covering the tombs of their beloved with flowers, food and drinks. After the dear departed have been remembered, prayers have been recited for the eternal repose of their souls, the living eat the food and drink the wine. Not infrequently the festivities end with everyone leaving the cemetery in complete state of intoxication, laughing and crying at the same time. Healthy and a good way to drown your sorrow, many say! Nothing like suffering aloud with your relatives and friends!

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