Day of the Dead

October 1992

" Holidays in the south of Mexico remain truer to their origins and less mutated by commercial forces than here in the U.S. Like Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, they are about people, about sharing food, about being together with family and friends..."

As you were all costuming up for Halloween up there we were reveling in the Day of the Dead, or All Saints Fiesta down here. It is as big a deal as Christmas and a lot of fun. One immediately noticeable aspect of Mexican celebrations, Easter, Day of the Dead, etc., is that they are not commercial events. They are not marketing schemes, rather they are about people, getting together, sharing food, eating a lot and being friendly. On the down side they are also occasions for getting stupidly drunk and sleeping in the street.

Day of the Dead is a celebration and communion with dead ancestors. Every house constructs beautiful altars piled high with flowers, fruit, bread, chocolate, nuts, maybe a bottle of Coca Cola, maybe a bottle of tequila. This is made for dead relatives with a loaf of bread and cup of chocolate for each one (within reason). The idea is that these folks come in and dine on the goodies, but before they come they must be awakened from their year of sleep since last Day of the Dead. This is accomplished by going to the cemetery at 1 or 2 in the morning with great bundles of flowers, mostly big marigolds, and gigantic candles and adorning all relatives grave stones. Then you hang out till sunrise to awaken the folks.

I went out to Atzompa to go to the grave ard with my pottery family/surrogate family. It was pretty spectacular. A photographic wonderland if you've got 1,000 film. The whole village comes out, which lets you know that everyone dies and everyone has lost someone - not a bad thing to remember. The grave yard comes alive with the warmth of a thousand candles and the fragrance of endless flowers. Children run around collecting dripping wax off the candles, seeing who can make the biggest wax balls. Adults talk among themselves, build fires to keep warm and do their best not to nod off. The whole scene is surreal. The great tree in the center glows with the light of so many candles. What a long way this is from the horrible, misty, ghoul-ridden graveyard of our popular myth. This graveyard is alive and ancestors are warmly remembered and celebrated.

The next few days after this are a trial by stomach. Everyone goes around visiting friends carrying gifts of fruit and flowers, and inevitably are served a great plate of mole (Mexico's answer to curry) and 20 tortillas. I particularly enjoy this part of Day of the Dead though it can be quite painful ultimately.


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