Monday, November 12, 2012

Dia de Los Muertos

And now for something a little different!

Usually, since almost no one reads my blog, I save it for writing random tri and training related things, almost like an open training journal. 

But since I just returned from Mexico, I wanted to write up a little about la Dia de Los Muertos, the day of the day celebrations.  I attended these celebrations with las hermanas, the Benedictine sisters my group was staying with.  

It's rare that we get the opportunity to say, "Wow, I really had the wrong idea about this event!" but it's true, in this case.  Everything that I had learned in the States about the day of the dead was entirely wrong.  

Thanks to a strange mix of Disney cartoons and a Sunday school teacher with a strong fundamentalist bent, I had some vague idea that the day of the dead involved dancing skeletons, attempts to ward off evil spirits, and priests praying to keep people's souls from coming home ever again.   Somehow, sugar skulls were involved and Goth people wore skulls as decoration while the rest of the people used them to trap the spirits.  

That could not be more wrong.  

First of all, there are indeed skeletons, but it's not a scary dancing figure of doom.  Meet Katrina.  

Katrina is a name for an elegant, high class woman.
This is the figure of death- well-to-do, not wanting for anything, classy, gracious, and beautiful.  

The day of the dead is the day when the souls of the departed are welcomed home to their family.  I'm not comfortable enough in Spanish to fully understand what the soul does in the year after it has died- does it travel?  Does it wander?- but on the day of the dead after the first year in which that person died, the soul comes home. 

The family builds an elaborate altar.  
One of the altars with the food offerings, including fruit and pan de muertos, the bread of the dead.
Which is delicious, by the way. 

The altar usually has an effigy of the person, with fresh new clothes and shoes laid out with a sugar or a seed skull.  Surrounding the altar, there are candles, icons, and all sorts of offerings.  There will be reminders of things the person liked to do, like a clay model of a bull-riding person or cigarettes, and bowls and dishes of their favorite foods.  There will be all sorts of autumn flowers around the altar.  Marigolds are very much in use.  In addition to being in the arrangements, the petals will be scattered in a path out to the door or even all the way to the streets to help the deceased find their way home again.  
In between the flower candles, you can see the seed skull, and the red shoes at the base of the altar.  There's a large canopy protecting this altar from the open sky above, and lots of food offerings!  The striped, small candles in the lower right are the sort of candles people bring as offerings.

Outside the home, a street fair that feels something like Mardi Gras meets New Year meets Halloween is going on.  Families who lost someone within the last year have elaborate flower signs with that say "Welcome home, Mama Irene".  

"Welcome home, papa Esteban."  On the floor, on the right hand entrance, the marigold pedals are scattered as a path.
This is what you do: you ought to be carrying a small offering, such as flowers or a pack of candles.  (Helpful street vendors are ready to sell these items.) You go to visit each family, and you pay your respects to the survivors.  You give the family a small offering for their altar.  We were following a priest, who said a short service at each altar.  

And then they feed you.  They give you something like a tamale or taco, or punch, or coffee, and in one case, a hearty glug of tequila.  

In some houses, the family is a little sadder, but in many cases, it seems the community is celebrating a life, and celebrating a reunion.  The dead aren't seen as scary, but rather, as beloved family members come home after a separation.  

The next day, everyone goes to the cemetary.  And I mean, everyone!  It was so crowded!  There was street food everywhere!  By this point, I was beginning to experience severe problems in my tummy.  Perhaps the vegetarian should not eat a bunch of greasy meaty street food, you think?  That didn't stop me from buying the coolest deep-fried potato thing I've ever seen. This thing is a single, spiral-cut potato, impaled on a stick, and deep-fried.  
One single potato.  With chili sauce.  From the image of my poor belly, you can probably guess how I was starting to be in abject misery.  But I just don't learn, do I?  And yes, it was delicious. 

 The Big E needs to know about this sort of thing.  America, look what we are missing!  

There's a Mass done by the priest.  The cemetery party takes a brief break- meaning that some people go sit in the lawn chairs near the chapel, but most of the people just take a break from shooting off their firecrackers.  People set up the food from the altars the night before on the raised graves, and join their families for a great celebration picnic.  

My impressions is that it was very communal and extremely colorful!  Even the graves who didn't have a family to picnic on them had some flowers placed on them.  No one was left out. 

It’s kind of sad that we don’t have anything like this as part of our cultural consciousness.  It seems to be a great way to bring families together around people they cared for, and culturally, it seems to remove the fear and loathing of death.  As one theologian explained during our classes, evangelism can be difficult if your faith rests on the hope of the resurrection and a future in which you are reunited with your loved ones.  “Why do we need resurrection”, he recounted one family asking, “Everyone we love is with us right now.”  


Reverend Ref + said...

That's all very cool. I would like to say that you should've been at convention instead, but how can you argue with a 5' potato on a stick?

The Vagabond Priest said...

True. Even the fabulous Sara Miles pales in the face of a 5' potato on a stick.