The Day Of The Dead...

It sounds like a zombie movie, but El Dia de los Muertos is a very real day with a long and serious spiritual history. Gareth Mason witnesses a day out for all the family, dead or alive, that’s taken place in Mexico and in Latin America for over 3,000 years...   

Travelling by bus through the Ecuadorian countryside, last year, I witnessed a strange phenomenon. Passing through each small village and hamlet, I saw multiple generations of families gravitating towards local cemeteries in all their finery humping picnic hampers and armfuls of bric-a-brac.

Outside the graveyards, vendors hawked wares noisily, while I glimpsed the guitars of a Mariachi band flourished with serious intent. Clearly, no sombre memorial for the dear departed. It wasn’t even a Sunday, and the colourful clothes and wide smiles seemed odd for folks visiting the tombs of their dead. It was my first glimpse of El Dia de los Muertos – known here as the Day of the Dead.

It has parallels with Halloween. Both concern the spiritual world and cover festivities beginning on October 31 and are related to the Christian celebrations of All Saints and All Souls Day held on 1-2 November. As well as honouring the saints on November 1 and everyone else the next, the first day also remembers the children who have died, known as angelitos or little angels. This explains the presence of brightly coloured toys and balloons. Large families and high infant mortality in poor rural areas make such tragedies far more commonplace than in the West.

The ghoulish costumes of Western children are not so different to the wooden skull masks, or Calacas, of Mexico. Rather than bobbing for apples, here they dance to literally and metaphorically raise the spirits of the dead. But while the Halloween celebrations play with a spirit world that provokes the ire of many, usually Protestant, Christians, the Day of the Dead is a serious religious occasion. Though serious, in a very Latin way, with an atmosphere that is fun and free of guilt.

The West, with its preoccupation for looking younger and living longer, tends to treat death as taboo. Latin Americans are generally more fatalistic. Death is more real, and predictable than the dream-like state of life. And when such ceremonies developed, dying in childbirth, battle, or even from the sacrificial knife of a human sacrifice was thought to be a guarantee of a good afterlife, if somewhat galling at the time.

The Life and Soul

The rituals emerged over 3,000 years ago in Mexico and have been practised by the bereaved ever since, including the war-like Aztecs, a relatively recent, 500 years ago. It spread with the population of Mexico into the United States and south into Central and South America. Aside from Mexico, it also has distant roots in nearby countries with large indigenous populations, such as Bolivia, Peru and Guatemala.

But it’s not just a celebration by the living, but one for the souls of the dead who return briefly home to their loved ones. Photos, diplomas and other memorabilia are displayed about the altars on both the graves and areas set aside in family homes. 

The favourite food and drinks of the departed are shared. This explains secular delights such as Tequila, beer and cigarettes being cheerfully passed around in an atmosphere that is more celebratory wake than sombre funeral. Such treats are made more to refresh the arriving dead from their celestial journey than sustain the relatives so if the set menu doesn’t appeal, don’t blame the chef! A bowl of water set aside allows the spiritual arrivals to freshen up after their annual trek much as the ancient Egyptians did for their nobles on their journey to the afterlife.
Traditional dishes fill the stores from October with many bakeries turning over their ovens exclusively to make foodstuffs for the festival. One of the most popular is a rich coffee cake called Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead). The cakes are decorated with ‘bones’ made from meringues or dough along with skull-shaped sweets and marzipan figures of the dead. Meat dishes with spicy sauces, chocolate drinks and every variation of rich Mexican cuisine is prepared.

The symbolism is different to Halloween. Here, it is positive and life affirming. Many pre-Colombians saw the skull as a symbol of life, not death, while receiving the portion of food with one baked inside indicates good luck much as the coin does found in the Christmas pudding of the West. Along with these edible Ofrendas de Muertos (offerings to the dead), tissue paper figures, intricate wreaths and crosses, candles and seasonal flowers such as marigolds, chrysanthemums and cockscomb all appear in abundance.

Once the graves have been tended and decorated, the dead are officially welcomed home. Candles are lit; Copal incense burnt. Prayers and chanting follow to help lead the departed back often to the sight and sound of fireworks and music. The summons is often accompanied by the pealing of church bells through the night until sunrise.

Noise is rarely understated in Latin America.

Celebrations vary between places. Two of the best-known are found in Janitzio Island on Lake Patzcuaro, west of Mexico, and Mixquin, now an outlying district of Mexico City. In Janitzio, festivities begin with a duck-hunt with the birds cooked at midnight in cemeteries lit up by thousands of candles set to an ethereal soundtrack of women praying and men chanting through the night. 

Scratch a Christian, Find a Pagan

Scratch the surface and you find origins far from Christianity. You also find an event that began in August, but slipped two months down the calendar! In the Andes, August is springtime and the celebration welcomed back the rains that refreshed the earth. Before the Spanish conquistadors ‘discovered’ and claimed Latin America as its own – the Aztecs celebrated the end of summer for a month around August. The patron goddess was Mictecacihuatl, or the more easily pronounced, Lady of the Dead. The Spaniards later tried to stamp out these nature-worshipping pagan beliefs.

Undoubtedly, their motives were mixed. Like the less than subtle Inquisition that followed in their wake, they claimed their duty was to enlighten and save the souls of the natives, while knowing that destroying the old ways made for a more easily subjugated population. The ways of the West were established in a hierarchical society that placed the natives at the bottom of the heap while telling them what to think and how to act.

This was certainly the case in Latin America and its rapid success was influenced by several factors. While the muskets, horses and armour of the conquistadors were the decisive weapons in overcoming the armies of the indigenous, diseases such as smallpox that came with the white men were even more lethal. Native populations fell dramatically. With the way cleared, the colonists swarmed in increasing numbers from Catholic Europe. Massive deportation of slaves from Africa further changed society to the point that many natives were now an alienated minority.

The ‘great white warriors’ from over the sea could also thank the native mythology of the natives for their pre-eminence. The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, usually depicted as a plumed serpent, was prophesised to return from the sea to rule over the people. The Spaniards were physically larger and stronger than the natives with weapons that spouted fire and armour that rendered them impervious to their attackers blows. Riding strange fearsome animals that charged effortlessly through the ranks of the indigenous, it was easily to see how they were first confused with gods. 

History also shows that subverting a belief system is easier when you adapt it to your own festivities rather than try and wipe it out. Catholicism is also clearly adaptable to religions worshipping more than one god. Its spread in Latin America was facilitated by the Dominican and Jesuit orders and the Catholic veneration of saints. Local deities were easily replaced by Catholic equivalents much like the Romans appropriated the gods of the Greeks with a cosmetic change of name. The practice of voodoo in modern Haiti is an example of this fusing of old African beliefs with modern Catholic ones or of the Candomble and Macumba ceremonies practiced in Brazil and imported by former slaves.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that superstition in Latin America is so noticeable in conventionally ‘religious’ people. Crossing oneself at the sight of a church or priest is normal, while great emphasis is put on the ritual and ceremony typical to Catholicism. Thus, traditional beliefs can co-exist with the new despite the seeming contradiction often with the ‘one true god’ existing in a lofty and distant role with day to day worship confined to the lesser spirits. Adherence to these very Latin celebrations today is partly a reaction against the modern cultural invasion of the US.        

Things are not always what they seem even in the magnificence of the immense capital, Mexico City. Surrounded by a wealth of grand colonial buildings and museums, you may first see only the architecture and culture of the Spanish invaders. But beneath your feet lie the well-preserved foundations of the ancient Aztec island city much like the metaphor of the melding of the ancient and modern religions. Without this ancient settlement, a city of 20 million might still be a giant duck pond.

Much may change without going away as the souls of the dead would testify.