Crop Over Day of the Dead (1)
November 1 and November 2
It’s not every day you get to party with the dead, but on the first two days in November, all of Mexico does just that, as everything stops for the most distinctive festival on the calendar, a nationwide communion with the departed, known as the Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Sound a touch morbid? It’s actually a more joyful occasion than you might expect, as it’s both a time for the remembrance of loved ones and a celebration of the eternal cycle of life – a carnival of welcome, if you like, for the spiritual return of the dead. For days in advance, favourite dishes are prepared and placed on flower-bedecked altars, along with a beloved tequila. Come nightfall, graveyards quickly start to resemble Mexican roadside restaurants, as picnic tables and chairs are set around graves, tortillas are fried, and substantial quantities of tequila are consumed in memory of the deceased.
The Day of the Dead may not be a depressing occasion, but it is certainly rather Gothic, an intriguing synthesis of Aztec ritual and Spanish Catholic tradition. The peoples of Mesoamerica traded, warred, conquered and progressively handed down their traditions from one ruling civilization to another until 1519, when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived to spoil the party. The principal guardians of the Mesoamerican heritage were the Aztecs, who had adopted the beliefs of the Otomi, Nahua, Purepecha and Totonac tribes, which held that the departed weren’t dead, they were just residing in Mictlan, a dark waiting- room where they could bide their time before returning to visit their loved ones – who couldn’t see them but could sense their presence. At the end of the harvest season, in mid-August, deceased children were remembered in a festival known as Miccailhuitolntli (Little Feast for the Dead). This was immediately followed by Hueymiccaihuitl (Great Feast of the Dead), during which living relatives could help the dead make a more pleasant journey back to the land of the living by strewing aromatic flowers all about to guide them to a banquet prepared as temptation. The Spanish brought a different tradition, ostensibly Christian, but with roots in European paganism that may date back 25 centuries to the Irish Celts. One version has early Celtic peoples marking the end of summer on October 31, when the spirits of those who had died during the previous year would return in search of a living body to inhabit for the following year. The living tried to discourage the dead from taking over their bodies with noisy processions and ghoulish costumes. Aided by the Romans, the tradition found its way to southern Europe, where, by the seventh century, Christians were celebrating All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows Eve), in honour of all saints and martyrs without their own saint’s days. This was followed by All Souls’ Day, when people would pray to speed their deceased relatives’ passage through purgatory. To gain acceptance for Christian teachings, Pope Gregory IV set the date of All Souls’ Day to coincide with the Celtic pagan festival, encouraging an early synthesis of pagan and Christian traditions.
Spanish military conquest went hand in hand with religious dominion, and the clash of cultures was devastating, forcing pragmatic priests to seek only a partial conversion. Heathen Aztec practices were tolerated as long as they could be subsumed into the new religion and their gods made to conform to the Catholic pantheon of saints. Their indigenous celebrations of the dead fitted neatly with European All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, and so Miccailhuitolntli and Hueymiccaihuitl were shifted a couple of months back to November – a pseudo-Christian Halloween that became inextricably entwined with Aztec spirituality, and quickly took on a uniquely Mexican identity. Many of Mexico’s fiestas are raucous occasions – anything from a religious procession with music and chanting to all-out street-warfare with rotten fruit, and usually with a good deal of tequila-fuelled carousing. But the Day of the Dead is principally a family affair, with the rites enacted in the home and in the cemetery. Open doorways – left ajar in case the spirits should lose their way – reveal dimly-lit front rooms where photos of a deceased husband or daughter reflect the candlelight from makeshift altars, and extend a welcome to neighbours who often pop in to help add the final touches to the fireside altar. Built from plywood (or perhaps an old beer crate), they’re always beautifully turned out: decorated with flowers and laden with gifts – typically food in clay pots. It may be just a few snacks, or a complete meal of chicken in spicy chocolate sauce accompanied by a stack of tortillas, with hunks of pumpkin boiled in brown sugar syrup. But there will always be Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead), a sweet dough shaped into human forms known as animas (souls). Meanwhile, at the local cemetery, mausoleum-style graves get gussied up and old men in overalls go around daubing their ancestral plot with blue or white paint. Paths are weeded and everything is draped in flowers. Anything bright and blowsy will do, but marigolds – the Aztec flower offering for the dead, known as zempasuchitl– work best.
On the days leading up to the Day of the Dead, marigold petals pave the streets in a kind of paperchase from people’s houses to the cemeteries, and market stalls all over Mexico groan with ghoulish reminders of mortality, many of them edible. Everywhere, you’ll see the painted sugar-candy skulls – traditionally seen as a symbol of life rather than death – often ranked in metre-high pyramids ready to be hauled off to decorate the home altar, alongside skeletons (calaveras see box opposite) made of cardboard, clay or, most often, papier-mache; dressed like the deceased – musicians, brides, lawyers, even beer-swilling borachos, or drunks – they’re a kind of danse macabre with a wry twist of Mexican black humour.