The Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead
The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London,
because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death...
jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it;
it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.
Officially in México, November 1 is dedicated to All the Saints (Todos los Santos), and November 2 to the Faithful Dead (los Fieles Difuntos). However, popular tradition has it that the 1st is dedicated to dead children, and the 2nd to dead adults. Although these celebrations are a product of two traditional cultures, the Hispanic and the Indian, the distinction between the two celebrations comes from the Pre-Hispanic period.
In the indigenous Nahua ritual, there were two celebrations dedicated to the dead: the Celebration of the Little Deaths (Fiesta de los Muertecitos), and the Big Celebration of the Dead (Fiesta Grande de los Muertos). These celebrations, besides being dedicated to the dead, also were dedicated to the end of the agricultural cycles.
The Spanish celebration of the dead souls is not as intense or festive as that of the Indians. In this tradition. the month of November is called the "Month of the Dead Souls". The only real similarity between this celebration and that of the Indians in México is the dedication of November 2 as a memorial to departed members of the family. This memorial day was established in Europe in the 9th century by Pope Gregory IV, and since then has been rapidly losing its significance in Spain.
Mexicans look upon dying as one more misfortune to contend with, but they also regard it as the ultimate liberation. This attitude stems from the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of pre-Columbian México, who viewed skeletons and other results of death as symbolizing life. Therefore, the Day of the Dead in México has become an annual national holiday whose importance and festivities are unmatched in any other part of the world.
Four days before and after the Day of the Dead (November 2), death is present everywhere in México. It leers invitingly from bakery windows where the special "panes de muertos" (breads of the dead) are made in animal and human form. In the candy stores, wonderful sugar skulls are prepared with peoples' names printed in the icing. These are often exchanged as gifts by friends and loved ones. Newspapers publish satirical verses, called "calaveras" (skulls), in which humorous epitaphs are used to praise or criticize important people throughout the country. The performance of the famous play Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla is commonly staged in many cities. The dead's relatives clean the graves, and decorate them with natural and paper flowers, dishes of food and candles.
Beginning on November 1, incense and candles (one for each remaining dead soul) are strategically placed in order to light the way to the family altar. In many places, families make a path of marigold petals from the sidewalk to the family altar so that the souls will recognize their way. In addition, everyone goes to mass, and children are given toys with the appearance and image of death.
It is believed that on November 1, souls of children who have died return home, and on November 2, the souls of the adults come back. Since no soul should be deprived of the food it liked best during life, special dishes of food are prepared. The souls of children are supplied with all kinds of candy, fruit, hot chocolate, atole (a nourishing beverage made with corn meal), and other favorite foods. The adult souls in addition receive a small supply of their favorite alcoholic drinks.
On November 2, the number of candles and dishes of food increases. Pumpkins and special varieties of bread are baked in many shapes, sizes and colors (sometimes
the loaves are enormous and represent humans). Sometimes, part of the food is taken to the cemetery along with marigold flowers, and placed at the grave of the soul. There, the family and friends stays until dawn of November 3.
Regions in the states of Oaxaca, México, and Michoacán have special traditions to commemorate the Day of the Dead. A visit to these states during the celebration becomes an unforgettable experience.
In Nejapa de Madero, Oaxaca, preparations begin as earky as a month before when the stalks are chosen for the family altars, typical foods are slowly prepared, and mezcal is bought.
On November 1, people adorn the graves of their "little angels" (angelitos), those who died as children. Church bells begin their two-day day and nigth tolling. On November 2, people gather to hear priests give sermons for the souls of the deceased, while bands play traditional music. People search the neighborhod for the souls of relatives who cannot find their way home. They visit neighbors' houses saying: "Will you give me a dead soul?" If the neighbor is just an acquaintance, he/she says to them: "proceed to the altar to pray", after which they are given something from the altar. If the neighbor is a friend, they are shown to the dining room where they are given mezcal, an alcoholic drink, and food. One must have a big appetite and a high alcohol tolerance level, because one eats and drinks at every house visited.
In Metepec, bells announce the arrival of the souls of both children and adults. People dress in black during the entire celebration, and families recite the 9th psalm and burn copal and incense. In addition, a great variety of famous ceramic ware is produced during this celebration.
Tradition has it that children's souls arrive on November 1 at 8 a.m. Upon their arrival, they are served with a breakfast consisting of arroz con leche (rice pudding), chocolate, pumpkin seed candies, almond sugar dough and bread. At 8 p.m., the adult souls are believed to return. The offering to them consists mainly of tamales of three different colors (made from three different types of corn), a plate of mole with the soul's favorite chicken piece, camotes, chayotes, pulque, water, raspberry wine, guayaba or lemon, etc. A common practice is for people to put pictures of the dead soul and its saints with the offerings in order to be protected by them. While the children's souls leave at 12 noon on the same day (November 1), the adults are said to leave at 2 p.m. on the following day (November 2).
In Janitzio island, in the state of Michoacán, November 1st represents a day of great feasting. At midnight, the rituals spread out around Lake Pátzcuaro which surrounds the island, and soon the tolling of church bells begins. At this point, it is believed that the souls return to cemeteries everywhere. People bring them offerings of flowers, lights and foods such as bread, candy, fruit, etc. to the graves. Altars are set up on the graves, and everyone prays by candlelight. All night long the bells continue to toll calling for the dead to return for the ceremony. Throughout the island, people use candles, songs and music to plead for their absent souls' rest.