Days of the Dead
The Tzeltals of Mexico celebrate the Feast of the Dead for thirteen days, beginning on October 25th. Graves are decorated with pine needles and tusus (yellow wild flowers).
In Puebla, the accidentados (the souls of those who died in accidents) return on October 28th, followed by the angelitos (the souls of dead children) who show up at noon on October 31, to be followed by the souls of dead adults on November 1. This sequence probably derives from the Aztec calendar which devoted two months to the dead: the ninth month to dead infants, the tenth month to dead adults.
The Aztecs did not fear death like European Christians, for whom it was a time of judgment. The Aztecs saw death as a phase in a cyclic journey. In fact, to die was to wake from the dream of life. In the Yucatan, the Maya bury their dead with food, drink, clothing and other things they will need on their journey to the place of the dead.
The combination of the indigenous reverence for death with the Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls brought to Mexico by the Spaniards in 1521 produced a flowering of ritual and art in Mexico around the time of this holiday. Vendors sell skeletons made of paper mache or clay and wire with cotton wool hair, dressed as postmen, revolutionaries, street vendors, wedding couples and musicians and macabre toys, like clay skulls with movable lower jaws or skeletons that dance on a string. In Oaxaca, you can turn a handle and watch skeletons in small painted wooden theatres rise up in their coffins or drink from a cup. Printers make special editions and comic publications, satirizing famous people both dead and alive, who are depicted in skeleton or skull form with satirical obituaries, describing the person and his (mis)deeds.
Children beg for “a funeral” or “a death” and are given treats like bones made of milk chocolate and sugar skulls with maraschino cherries for eyes and grins of syrup and rows of fine gold teeth, sometimes bearing their name. One visitor to Mexico in 1884 remarked on figures in the shape of guitars, sheep, angels, souls in purgatory (I’d like to see this!) and animals “of every species, enough to form specimens for Noah’s ark.”
The Days of the Dead are a time of reunion. People travel home. Altars are set up in houses, and decorated with flowers, leaves, fruit, incense and candles. Sometimes flower petals are scattered in a path from the altar to the open door to guide the returning dead.
Ofrendas, offerings, to the dead of food and drink are placed on the altar. The dead derive nourishment from the smell of the food and drink so it should have a strong aroma. Starr mentions liquors, cigarettes, mole, pulque and tamales. Anita Brenner in Idols Behind Altars mentions beans, chili, tortillas, and other ordinary dishes plus the specialties of the season: “pumpkins baked with sugar cane, pulque or a bluish maize-brew with a delicate sugar film, and Dead Mens’ Bread. For the children, candy skulls, pastry coffins, ribs and thigh-bones made of chocolate and frosted sugar, tombstones, wreaths, and pretentious funerals.”
Everyone goes to church. Masses are said. Genealogies recited. On the night of November 1, people gather in cemeteries and spend the night with “the little dead ones.” A priest might come and sprinkle the graves with holy water. Candles burn on every grave which are decorated with offerings and flowers. Brenner mentions heavy purple wild blossoms and the yellow pungent cempoalxochitl (marigolds). In Zinacantan, the graves are covered with pine needles, pine boughs and red geraniums and offerings. In Jimenez, people bring the bed in which the person died to the cemetery, hung with lace and curtains, white for children and black for adults. Those who have no beds take tables and place them over the grave instead, decorating them with gold and silver paper stars, paper flowers, etc. Sometimes bands serenade the dead with songs and music. In other places, people dance. Refreshments are sold at the gate.
In San Augustin, the children gather at the church early in the morning of October 31st. From there, they walk to the graveyard, carrying a banner depicting the Eucharist, bread angels and green branches, accompanied by a prayer-maker and a few women and a band. In the graveyard, they say prayers and then return to the church, bringing back with them the souls of the angelitos, the dead children. After praying a second time, they go home to feast with their parents on mole, tamales, bread, squash, fruits, pumpkin prepared with brown sugar, maize cobs and other foods. At night four dishes are put on the floor of the house, together with candles, flowers and food for the dead. Bread and fruit are put on a “sun-and-water” bed made from maize stalks. Candles and tiny angels are left on the dry stone walls and fences so that the village children can come and carry them off. Animals are watched to make sure they don’t eat the offerings; dogs are sometimes muzzled during this holiday so their barking doesn’t drive away the dead. In the morning, the family eats the food left out for the dead and prepares another feast for the dead adults. On the third day, November 2nd, the children, along with the prayer-maker and the band, take the dead back to the graveyard.
Brenner, Anita, Idols behind Altars. Beacon Press 1970, quoted in Sayer
Sayer, Chloe, ed, Mexico: The Day of the Dead, London: Redstone Press
Starr, Frederick, from a catalogue for the Collection of Objects Illustrating the Folklore of Mexico, produced for the Folkore Society in London quoted by Sayer
The beautiful photographs were taken by Judy Maselli in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Taken from my Halloween holiday e-book which contains recipes for sugar skulls and bones of the dead, plus more information on other cultural variants of this holiday including I Morti in Italy, Samhain in Ireland, Nos Galan Gaef in Wales. You can order it and get an instant download link at my store.