It wasn't so strange, of course - Asian and African cultures have long honored, formally and informally, ancestors who have passed on. And the clever conquistadors saw their own connection - the Christian observance of All Saints Day on November 1. So they quickly moved the indigenous Mexica celebrations from August to November and tried, as they had with so many other rituals, to meld the two into one, to "Christianize" the indigenous culture.
It almost worked. The Spaniards succeeded in changing the time of the celebrations, but much of the indigenous rituals remained the same. Today, the Day of the Dead, el Dia de los Muertos, begins in late October when calaveras (skeletons, but with lots of personality), start appearing in shop windows and markets and when pan de muerto (literally, the Bread of the Dead) starts appearing in both mom-and-pop (mama y papa?) panaderias (bakeries) and in fancy boxes in department stores like Sanborns. Then, just a week ago or so, we started seeing papel picado (paper cutouts) in the local mercado (market) - scroll down the page to see the ones we picked out for ourselves, including one of two people praying in front of a guitar-laden ofrenda and then a bright purple one for our bedroom door with calaveras casadas (married skeletons!).
All of these ingredients are not just for random decorations, though that´s what we used them for. Normally they´re used to make ofrendas, elaborate displays set up for a person or a group of people who have died, either recently or long ago. These can be intimately personal or highly political. Our cocinera (cook) at the Lutheran Center, who Chris has bonded with over pie-making, is planning to go back to the town she grew up in this weekend, where her family is from, to make ofrendas and visit the graves of her aunts and uncles. On the other end of the spectrum, this afternoon we walked over to Ciudad Universitaria, to the UNAM campus, to see the ofrendas - and other creations, like gigantic paper-mache skeletons - students had created. Nearly all of them honored Octavio Paz, a Nobel prize-winning Mexican author who died 10 years ago (notice the pictures saying ¨diez anos sin Paz,¨ ten years without Paz, or peace, nice double meaning there), or honored the students who died in the Olympic massacre at Tlatelolco in October 1968. (You can find some pictures from our exploring at the UNAM by scrolling down a bit.)
As for our celebrations, well, up until today they´ve been largely gastronomical. We've been eating the bread of the dead for weeks now - I can´t get enough of it. Pan de muerto is a sweet bread made with anise seed, shaped to look like it has a little skull on top with bones coming down the sides, and covered in sugar. Dead, your bread is de-licious!
Then last week I found some pan de muerto shaped like a person. Chris says it's called an anima, a spirit (anima, like animated, right?). So, I bought some bread shaped like a ghost. Homer Simpson comes to mind: mmmm...sacrelicious....
There are also the calaveras de azucar, sugar skulls. I've already posted some pictures of these (scroll down a bit), but you can find them as simple as we did or much larger and much more elaborately decorated. Apparently you're supposed to put the name of your friend on a sugar skull and then give that named sugar skull to your friend so that she can "eat her own death." That´s just too cool for words...
The only thing marring our Days of the Dead is the visible encroachment of Halloween, lamented not only by us but by Mexicans we´ve met. The conquest continues: Today the Day of the Dead is not being "Christianized" so much as "Americanized."
Back in August one of our language teachers told us that his young son and the other neighborhood kids are more and more excited about Halloween than they are about the Mexican celebrations. They want to dress up in costume and trick-or-treat around Tepoztlan rather than make ofrendas with papel picado and calaveras. He worries that the vibrant and unique traditions he grew up with will die out.
We've certainly seen that worry manifested in Mexico City and Cuernavaca. Orange-and-black Halloween decorations with witches and goblins are in more and more places here, especially the WalMart-owned Superama grocery store. It sometimes seems to crowd out el Dia de los Muertos, so that what you find instead of calaveras (Mexican-style skeletons) are vampires and werewolves. Now, don´t get me wrong: I love vampires and werewolves as much as the next Buffy the Vampire Slayer addict, and Halloween is one of my favorite holidays back in the States. But can´t we just enjoy our holidays without shipping them around the world?
Sigh. You know who this is a job for? Esteban Colberto! Every year, Stephen Colbert parodies the ¨War on Christmas¨canard with segments denouncing the "war on Halloween." So, I say his Cuban alter ego gets down here and bellows (imagine his voice here) "Hay una guerra encontra el Dia de los Muertos! (There's a war on the Day of the Dead!)" It would, of course, have to be complete with appropriate news-show graphics.
But, invasion of Halloween or not, we carry on with our Dia de los Muertos celebrations. This Saturday night we're going to Ocotepec, a little village just outside Cuernavaca, to experience their traditions. Full report to follow, but in the meantime...
Feliz dia de los Muertos!