Day of the Dead
Mexico's Feasts of Life
El Dia de los Muertos, The day of the Dead, combines pre-Hispanic Indian beliefs with the Catholic traditions of Medieval Spain. The ancient religions of Mexico saw death as only one state in an endless cycle of being. Even the universe died and was reborn again and again. The line between the living and the dead, so clear to North Americans, was soft and blurred.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th Century, they brought with them the heritage of Medieval Europe, which had its own strong, though darker, involvement with the idea of death. During the dangerous and tumultuous early Middle Ages, French Poets created the image of the "Danse Macabre," Dancing Death in the form of a cloaked skelton, coming to take away everyone in the end, from popes to peasants. The church counsled wise behavior for eternal life, but some were bound for Purgatory, the in-between state of the unredeemed. All Souls day, in early November was the day that the faithful parayed for the souls in Purgaroty, to shorten their sojourn there.
In the miraculous way that ideas are transformed through rebirth in another culture, All Souls Day in Spanish-Indian Mexico became the Day of the Dead. Instead of praying for those in Purgatory, Mexicans celebrated with those who had gone before, feasted with them and welcomed them home for a visit.
In the words of the great poet and writer Octavio Paz, fiesta allows us to "throw down our burdens of time and reason." In the fiesta of Muertos (the dead), time no longer bars one spirit from another by reason of death. Mothers and fathers welcome back the spirits of children by creating altars in their homes. On the morning of October 31, the souls of "los angelitos," the little innocent ones, return. Everything on their altars is new, and there are favorite sweets, toys, flowers and candles, By noon on November 1, the children have left and the souls of the departed adults begin to return, to feast at altars with their favorite foods.
Mexicans believe that the dead wish for the living the things of life, the regions, in the great cities and in far-flung villages, fiesta is celebrated. In the cemeteries, entire familes devote themselves to washing the tombstones and decortaing them with flowers, portraits, refreshing drinks, and garlands of the traditional flower of the celebration, the yellow-orange zempasuchil, or marigold, which floods the markets with a sea of saffron brillance in the day during the fiesta, Cannas, calla lilies, baby's breath, daisies, hollyhocks, and a rainbow of other flowers crowd the markets and are carried by the bale wrapped in huge straw mats, to the gates fo the cemeteries, Burros laden with flowers are led down the dusty roads of the villages, and horse-drawn carts heaped high with flowers rumble behind them.
After a lifetime of feasts celebrated with family and friends of all ages, feasts redolent with strong aromas and vivid with spicy, fresh, colorful foods, it seems appropriate that the spirit would return again yearly to those it knew and loved, to partake once more of the pleasures of earth. The last and forever-recurring feast of Mexico bridges life and death, feeding both body and soul.