The Day of the Dead
"I think it's very healthy to get kids thinking about death and I think it's good to remember dead loved ones on a certain designated day."
-- Diane Hutchinson (A visitor to Mexico from London for Day of the Dead in 1997)
I am about to take my kids to the market tomorrow to buy articles for their first ofrenda, or altar for the dead, so that they can participate in their heritage, the fiesta of Día de Muertos.
My five-year-old daughter asked if we could also buy Halloween trinkets, to which her Mexican father replied sternly, "No, this is Día de Muertos, not Halloween."
I am in agreement, and we already have discussed who our celebrated difuntos (deceased ones) are going to be.
We are very lucky that our own parents are alive and kicking, and the one pet that died (an African hedgehog, no less) hasn't officially popped her socks, since we told our eldest at the time that she went to live with her parents. It might be complicated to pronounce her dead now.
So we have chosen fairly remote antepasados (ancestors) ones we remember well, but the tots don't and our ofrenda will be to honor my and my husband's maternal grandparents (we think we can rustle up photos of them it would be harder with the paternal ones). The idea is to allow the children to get an initial grip on the subject without seeing it as cause for sadness or anxiety.
Tomorrow I will buy sugar, chocolate and amaranth skulls, although I doubt I will find ones with the names Gerrit and Trijntje (my Dutch grandparents' names). We might be hard pushed for Clementina although I expect Raúl will be fine. Anyway, we can re-label the skulls' foreheads ourselves.
I fancy some sugar coffins, if I can find them, and of course we will choose a load of papel picado (colored crepe paper, cut into shapes of haughty skeleton ladies, drunken, dancing bags of bones and pistol bearing, sombrero-wearing cadavers after engravings by José Guadalupe Posadas at the end of the nineteenth century).
A purple rebozo (shawl) of mine would make a good tablecloth for the altar, and then the bit I most look forward to is the cempazúchitl (frilly Mexican marigold) that is the traditional flower for this fiesta. This I intend to buy huge bunches of, to dissect and dismember and make lots of pretty patterns with (although I won't be making petal paths pointing towards the graveyard, as tradition has it, as I have no idea where any of my difuntos graves are with relation to my home).
The other flower of the season is the deep purple pink garra de tigre (tiger's paw), which looks like a furry pom pom. I plan to stand these wonders in tall vases on either side of our altar.
Candles and incense are next. With little ones about, the former have to be as safe as possible. I already have some copal incense a friend bought me as a present, so I am delighted to have a chance to use it (although I'll have to ask my husband how to light it, as it's just a pretty semi-crystalline slab at the moment).
Candles are essential to provide light for the dead to see their way back here from "the other place."
That's what the fiesta is all about. According to Berta Hiriat in her short story book On The Days of the Dead ("Ediciones Brujas"!), the dead thus honored are conceived as "relatives who have left for the other world before us." According to the traditions, the dead are thought and spoken of, as though they are still alive, but as continuous sentient beings in another place.
Incense serves a similar function, helping the dead find their way through mud and moss and dirt and dust, by the smell. Flowers the same, their scent and color, and the cempazúchitl marigold's special mystic properties as the flower of death.
Water and salt are the other things an altar must have, I am told. The dead could be traveling great distances and need the basic courtesy of a glass of water on arrival. Salt is also considered to represent sustenance.
Pan de Muertos ("dead bread" just airy sweet bread coated in sugar) I'll get from the bakery, which leaves their favorite foods, drinks and vices.
My antepasados drank brandewijn rather than tequila or mescal, and I don't think I have any of that around. And they didn't eat tamales or mole, and I don't think I'll get round to making pea soup. I could put a bit of Dutch cheese out, but it would seem too silly, as though I were trying to catch a mouse.
So we'll keep it restrained on the meals, although I'll ask my mother-in-law tomorrow if her father or mother had any particular favorites. And I can certainly put out some tequila for my husband's grandfather, who I have heard liked the good life.
I have a pretty necklace of his wife that could go on there. My own Opa (grandfather) smoked pipes and cigars so we provide those. My buxom Oma (grandmother) had loads of wonderful white hair piled up in a bun that would rival Marge Simpson's, so maybe I'll put some hair clips out for her.
I don't think any of our four muertitos were card sharks, but that's a typical thing to put out the games the dead liked, such a dominoes. If the dead are children you put out their favorite toys, but that is happily not the case here.
Lastly come the photos, which is the one bit that will make me wistful. As usual photographs on home-altars are of happy events, like weddings and christenings (in the days when photos were a luxury to mark an official occasion) so at least everyone will be smiling or puffing their chests out.
Los Días de Muertos (November 1 and 2) are a fascinating and bizarre time from the point of view of travelers to Mexico, and it helps to explain what it all means by allowing everyone to take part in the traditions. For example, I have asked one English friend who is visiting me over this period to bring a photo of her father, who died last year, in case she would like to make an altar for him.
As Diane Hutchinson observed after her visit to Mexico over the Muertos fiesta: "It's nice to think that the dead are a community to be remembered together, who may hang out together - the family who live over the hill - and having a special day for all of them makes this tangible."
By Barbara Kastelein
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