Day of the Dead

La Catrina - Posadas

La Catrina – Posadas

by La Voz de Mexico

It sounds ominous to those of us from European backgrounds. Naturally we think of Halloween, the ancient Celtic festival which has come to represent the return of ghosts and goblins and a night of evil lurking in the dark, representing the fear of death and what lies beyond life. Well, caste those dark thoughts aside and enter into the embrace of the uniquely Mexican celebration of death, where its inevitability is accepted as part of life, not feared but accepted.
The essence of The Day of the Dead is one of celebrations and remembrances full of respectfulness and joy. It is a time of family reunion and feasting where loved ones who have passed to the other side return to share in the joy of the family once again. Families reunite at the burial sites of their loved ones. Gravesites are cared for and adorned with an abundance of flowers and picnics are held throughout the day and night.
Actually, there are days of the dead. Prior to the invasion of the Spaniards, the Aztecs dedicated an entire month, Miccailhuitontli, to children and the dead. In the Aztec calendar, this ritual month was in the latter part of July and the beginning of August; however, after the conquest Spanish priests moved the celebration of the dead to coincide with the church’s All Hallows Eve (Oct. 31) and All Saints Day (Nov. 1) in an attempt to Christianize this ancient rite.
Altars, ever present in many traditional Mexican homes, are the focus on these special days of ancestor remembrance and worship where offerings (“ofrendas”) are made of the deceased’s favorite dishes and drinks including tamales, moles, sweets, and desserts. They are intended not only to honor the dead but to nourish them and are presented with flowers, fruits, pictures, statues, and a sweet bread known as “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead), an egg yolk and orange water bread fashioned in the shape of human bones and sprinkled with sugar.
One of the customs for the “living” is to give them sugar skull candies, elaborately decorated with their names on them, or coffin “jack in the boxes” with skulls popping out of the top.  It is a wonderful experience to wander through the traditional Mexican markets during these days to see the all the toys, candies, and pan de muerto. Death does bring a chuckle when placed in the midst of candy and toys.

Altar de Carmela

Altar de Carmelita (Foto: Carlos Quintana)

Different parts of the country have regional customs uniquely theirs. Tamales are a major part of the celebrations in the south of Mexico, especially. The Yucatecans make a type of tamale known as “muchillpollo” which is baked in an earthenware casserole and flavored with achiote. In Huasteca, the largest tamale in the world is made, “zacahuil.” Filled with pork and turkey, it is about 3 ft. long and weighs close to 150 lbs. It too is baked, not steamed, in a wrapping of banana leaves.
For those who are interested in experiencing a traditional “Day of the Dead”, one has to go beyond Cancun, an immigrant city too young for the centuries of tradition that bring the true spirit of the celebration to your heart. One of the most interesting areas to visit during these days is the town of Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacan where the celebrations date back to ancient Aztec civilization and the modern day world has not infringed too much upon the indigenous culture of that area.

Here are some terms used during Mexico’s Day of the Dead:

  • alfeñique – a special confection used to fashion skulls, fruits and other figures
  • angelitos – the souls of the children who have died, literally “little angels”
  • atole – an ancient drink made from corn meal and water flavored with various fruits
  • calavera – a skull, also a slang term for “daredevil”
  • calaveras – songs and poems about the festival
  • careta – a face mask
  • cempazuchitl – a yellow marigold, the symbol of death
  • capalli – a scented resin used to make candles
  • mole – a thick sauce made from a variety of ingredients including chilies, sesame seeds, herbs, spices, and chocolate.
  • ofrenda – an offering, refers to the goods set out on the altars
  • pan de muertos – bread of the dead
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