Sunday, November 18, 2012

Day of the Dead Celebrations

Enjoy our Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Meurtos) slideshow:

Differences in cultures are often illustrated by attitudes towards various key events in our lives.  Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead is a fine example. Where we in the United States might think of death as something somber, sad and not to be celebrated, Mexicans hold an entirely different set of attitudes reflected in their two thousand year history of honoring their dead yearly with food, flowers and music.

Gary and I had a wonderful time discovering the many elements of this tradition. For example, the altars placed at various locations throughout the city, in small tiendas (stores) and hotels, in our favorite Parque Juarez (a beautiful public park) and in the windows and doorways of private homes. Also, it was not unusual to confront large sculptures of human skulls, painted and decorated and  placed at key locations throughout the city. Parades like the "Desfile de Catrinas," a new San Miguel tradition as part of the first annual Festival of Calacas (skeletons), created a festive environment throughout the city for three days.

Many locals dressed up as "Catrins and Catrinas." Their outfits date back to the the unpopular Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz and the painter, Diego Rivera at the beginning of the 20th century. Rivera mocked the President in a famous mural in Mexico city, drawing attention to the President's pandering to European wealth signified by the dress: large hats with feathers, fancy gowns and suits for he men. He painted these people as skeletons.  We now see Catrinas as small and larger sculptures all over San Miguel de Allende, a fun collectors item.

For us, the most moving and impressive part of Day of the Dead was our visit early on November 2nd to the local cemetary.  We walked with a long line of people down the road to the cemetary's entrance. Families were carrying bundles of flowers, bright yellow and red, in their arms and some had trays of cooked food, fruits,  beer, cigars, and  candies in the form of animals and skeletons. On each side of the procession vendors were selling flowers and all sorts of items for decorating the gravesites.  It was a beautiful site to behold and once we entered the cemetery we confronted an even more impressive and touching panoply of people decorating their loved ones' gravesites, some very small indicating the death of a child, some larger and grander with even large stone sculptures or cement structures at their head. People for hire with shovels and buckets of water for the flowers roamed around, cleaning and weeding the gravesites. The site was not somber but respectfully joyous: musicians wandered amongst the gravesites and, when commissioned, played beautiful music with sentimental words and tones.  Tears came to the eyes of some family members and we dabbed our eyes, too, but not with sadness, rather with the joy of watching this moving spectacle.

Now for a little history of this well known tradition: Death in the majority of Mesoamerican cultures does not represent the end of life, but rather is the beginning of a new way of living with the gods. Day of the Dead coincides with harvest time and represents the living sharing the harvest and bounty with the dead. Day of the Dead symbols relate to sowing seeds and reaping the harvest and the relationship between life and death. Native traditions and symbols of Mesoamerica have over many years blended with those of Catholicism's All Souls and All Saints Days to create the beautiful celebrations of Day of the Dead in Mexico.

During Novemeber 1 (All Saints Day) altars are dedicated to the "little angels", children who have died. On November 2nd (All Souls Day) representations of the adults who have died take their place on the altars (photos and memorabilia of the one who has died).   On this day and night, it is believed that the souls of the devout return to their homes to regain strength from their favorite foods and drinks prepaared for them by the living.

A few of the many important elements are:

• Water, which represents the source of life, and is offered to the dead to quench their thirst and to give them life and energy for their "journey,"
• Salt: for purification, to keep the body and soul pure during their round trip journey.
• Candles which signify light, faith and hope.  The candlelight illuminates the way for the souls on their journey. The candles are aligned in the form of a cross to represent the compass points, helping to guide the spirits.
• White flowers (baby's breath, wallflowers and stock) to represent Heaven, kindness and pureness.
•Yellow flowers(marigolds) to represnt the soil and the power of light, sun and life.
• Various purple flowers to represent mourning of the dead.
• Red Flowers (Cockscomb- a flower with velvety petals) represents blood.
• Portraits and photos of the dead being honored.
• The favorite foods of the dead being honored.
• Drinks: the living drink atole (corn drink), hot chocolate and coffee to be with the dead.
• Liquor:  the favorite drinks of the dead are offered to remember good times.
Papeles Picatos (cut paper decorations) represent the joy of living.
• Skeletons: add humor and remind us that we will all eventually die.
• Fragrant fruits: for the enjoyment of the souls.  It is said, they "feed" on fragrance.
• Personal objects: the favorite items of those honored (their guitars, a child's toy, hats, tools)
• The three levels of the altars are from Catholocism and represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
•Flower arches represent the wish that those on Earth will be able to live with those in heaven.

For our part we erected a small altar in a window of our casa for our neighbors to see. We arranged marigolds, salt, rice and beans there with a folk art sculpture holding a skeletin and a small stand supporting a paper on which we wrote out (in Spanish) a memory of our three now deceased parents .  Unfortunately we did not have photographs of them with us, a fact that our maid pointed out to us sadly. In the end we felt redeemed when a neighbor,  a young man we have come to know, knocked on our door one evening and offered us a gift for our altar, three charming figures of animals sculpted from sugar. We truly felt part of the community and its traditions.  The Mexicans of San Miguel have adopted many of our "gringo " traditions as well. On Halloween day and night many children in costumes went door to door asking for treats. Now the local restaurants are graciously announcing the preparations for "our" Thanksgiving day festivities. More about that in my next blog.Hasta luego!