34 - Day of the Dead
Antonio does not believe that the dead return once a year. After he learns of an ancient belief that can prove that the dead return, Antonio does an experiment and receives a good scare. In the comments we talk about the indigenous origins of the Day of the Dead, what is offered and some of the Christian influences in this celebration.
At no time, in no era
At no time, in no era
will making music and singing to
the sun cease:
enjoy yourself, oh my prince,
you will not always be on earth;
we must leave tomorrow
or the following day.
Give pleasure to the Eagles and the
Tigers; our only regalia is flowers.
Everyone in the world thinks,
and flowers spring to our gaze.
Oh you for whom we live,
what is your wealth, what is your
Precious flowers that smell like corn
be borrowed from the earth!
What? Are we to take them to the
Place of the Fleshless?
Will we take them to your house?
(Poem cited by Juanita Garcíagodoy. Original source History of Nahuatl literature by Garibay K.)
Hola, hola! dear listeners of Tres Cuentos, the bilingual podcast dedicated to the literary, historical, and traditional narratives of Latin America. I am Carolina Quiroga-Stultz, and today we are doing a special program dedicated to El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which will be the last program of the year 2020.
Back in 2014, when I moved to Texas, I learned about this wonderful celebration that honors and welcomes the ancestors. I have always been interested in the afterlife, to the point that I considered studying theology just to find out more about how different doctrines handle, explore and explain the afterworld. This year especially, I have been diving into tons of books about the afterlife and listening to wonderful masters and guides on YouTube that are opening my eyes and soul to the things that, for a long time, I have yearned to know more about.
As a matter of fact, in my storytelling repertoire at least 40% of the stories related to ghosts, witches, mythology, and stuff like that. Interestingly, through the years, and thanks to El Día de los Muertos and a conscious exploration of spirituality, I have come to understand much more. Now I can even debunk old misconceptions. But all that I’ve learned would be best for future podcasts.
Today, I just want to bring closer to you the history, traditions and influences of El Día de los Muertos. So, let us begin with a story.
Told by Francisco Gonzalez Sol
Adapted by Carolina Quiroga-Stultz
In the state of Morelos, on the outskirts of the Mexican city Cuernavaca, lies the small Pueblo Ocotepec. Since most of the people in the town were of indigenous ancestry, they continued to speak Nahuatl and observe the customs of their people. One of these customs is the celebration of “El Día de los Muertos,” the Day of the dead.
This day is celebrated with great respect, especially by the elders. Over time traditions have changed. With the arrival of Catholicism and the mestizo culture, [that is the culture of mixed- race peoples] many of the younger generations no longer hold the old beliefs.
In the center of the town of Ocotepec lived the Ortiz family. The parents, Demetrio and Lupe, had three children: two daughters Hortensia and Maria, and a son, Antonio. Although Demetrio, the father, had taught his children by example to live in harmony with nature and to follow tradition, Antonio refused to believe in the customs of his people. On the contrary, ever since he attended Junior high school in the big city of the mestizos, he had become arrogant and not interested.
On the weekends Demetrio, the father, would wake Antonio early and take him to the cornfield. “Let’s go mijo, vamos son, let’s see how much the corn has grown.”
The morning air was fresh, and the birds were singing happily announcing the arrival of a new day. Demetrio continued “We will take Pecas and Toro with us mijo. They are already waiting outside.” The two-family dogs followed Demetrio whatever he went. They were his best friends.
In the meantime, Antonio was thinking, “I don’t want to go to the Milpa. I don’t understand why my father insists on teaching me how to till the land and care for the crops. I am going to be a doctor when I grow up!”
With Antonio grumbling along the way, they headed to the field. The visit to the Milpa, the fields, were always a form of classroom instruction. As they walked, Demetrio would teach his son the names of the various plants and explain their medicinal use. He would point out different types of trees and tell how to distinguish one bird’s call from another. Once they reached the Milpa, instruction would shift to the care of the land.
Demetrio would say “Mijo, corn doesn’t grow by itself. Like you, it requires love and care. When the plant grows strong and healthy, it gives us corn. This corn is sacred to our people as you are to me. Remember mijo in two days it will be Día de los Muertos,” the Day of the Dead. We will harvest some of the tender young corn. Your great-grandfather liked his grilled corn, and your great-grandmother liked squash. We will pick some of that, too.”
Antonio responded, “Papa only Indians believe that the dead come to eat! Los Muertos no vuelven!”
Demetrio nodded in sadness but hoped that one day his son would change his mind.
On the way home, father and son stopped for water at a natural spring and picked wild watercress for a salad. Further down the hill toward home, they picked herbs for the soup and seeds from the colorin tree to flavor the beans. They returned to the town late in the afternoon.
Pecas and Toro, the two dogs, were the first to enter the house, while Antonio left in search of his friends. Then, Demetrio went straight to the kitchen to give his wife Lupe the vegetables and herbs he had gathered and stayed chatting with his daughters and wife.
Demetrio said to Lupe, “It will be ‘Día de los Muertos’ Day of the Dead soon. What will we make?”
Lupe replied “No se preocupe mijo, do not worry, Demetrio. I have everything ready. The ingredients have been ground for the mole and the tamales are already cooking. Tomorrow I will bake the Pan de Muertos and go to the fields to cut cempazuchitl flowers. On the way back, I will stop by the house of my comadre, Tiburcia, and to buy some of her candles. She always gives me a good price!”
Demetrio thought, “everything is ready. Que Bueno! I won’t feel sadness when I die because I know my family will await me with all this wonderful food on ‘El Día de los Muertos!’”
After some time, Demetrio noticed that his son Antonio, was missing and asked. “Dónde esta mi hijo? Where is Antonio?”
Lupe said “Afuera con sus amigos, out with his friends. You know that is where he is. He won’t come home until late, and as usual; he will be drunk. You must speak to him, Demetrio. He needs to behave better if he wants to have a good future.”
At last, El Día de los Muertos arrived. The morning of October 31 was dedicated to cleaning and weeding the cemeteries, painting the headstones, and placing fresh flowers on the graves. The women spent the day cooking traditional dishes for the special occasion. Demetrio worked happily in the cemetery, thinking, “Tonight after we have prepared the ofrenda for muertitos, the dead, we will all return here to celebrate until dawn. It will be a wonderful fiesta! I cannot wait to meet mis abuelos, my ancestors”
When he had finished in the cemetery, Demetrio headed for home. As he walked, he heard women padding tortillas in preparation for the evening. The fragrance of mole and tamales simmering slowly over open fires filled the air. Demetrio closed his eyes as he recalled and ancient Nahuatl poem:
Not always to remain on this earth.
Even Jade can break.
Even fine feathers shred.
Not always to remain on this earth.
By the time Demetrio reached home, the family was assembled and waiting for him to officiate at the celebration of the ofrenda where he was the senior member. Everyone was there except Antonio. Since they could no longer wait for him, they began to invite the souls of all those who had died to come and partake of their ofrenda, offerings.
As they spoke each name, they placed special items that pertained to that person on the offering. Candles were lit for each soul, and glasses of water were set out for those who had no one to prepare food for them. In this way, they would have water to quench their thirst as they journeyed back to the underworld.
Once each person’s name had been called, the family went to the kitchen to eat dinner. Quietly, they talked about their grandparents and others who had died. After dinner they gathered additional offerings, copal, and candles to take to the cemetery. On the way, they met their compadres, neighbors, who were also going to the same cemetery.
A neighbor greeted Demetrio “Good evening, vecino.”
Demetrio saluted back and asked “Good evening, Juan. Have you seen my son, Antonio!?”
The neighbor replied “Yes, compadre. I saw him drinking beer with his friends. I told him to head on home since you were probably waiting for him, but he told me he would not go. He said he didn’t believe in these superstitions, that he was a civilized person and would not stoop to such a level.”
Demetrio nodded and thanked the neighbor. His heart was heavy, he wished Antonio would change his mind.
Meanwhile, Antonio and his friends sat on the street corner drinking. José a good friend of Antonio began to talk about El Día de los Muertos, “Antonio, you don’t believe in that stuff, do you?”
Antonio laughed “Pos no! Of course not! When you die, they bury you, and that’s it. I have never seen nor heard a spirit. This stuff about the dead returning every year is pure superstition, bobadas, nonsense!”
Pepe, another friend, spoke up, “Well, I believe it, and my uncle told me it’s very easy to prove.”
Antonio laughed “Yeah, right! This sounds like another tall tale. But tell us anyway. How are you supposed to prove it?”
Pepe continued “All you have to do is to wipe off the dog’s sleep, la lagaña, the eye boogers and rub it on your eye lids, and you will see everything that they see, because dogs can see the spirit world.”
After a while, their conversation shifted to other topics, and more liquor flowed. Later, Antonio left his friends and went to the cemetery since the whole town was there.
On his way he thought about what Pepe had said. “Dog’s sleep, la lagaña, the eye boogers? Seguro, surely it was another crazy thing that people believe in!”
Arriving at the cemetery, he sat down and watched the people, taking in the scent of the incense and flowers. Pecas and Toro, the house dogs, found Antonio and happily ran to him wagging their tails. Again, the young man thought about what Pepe had said about the dog’s sleep, la lagaña, the eye boogers. He said to himself “I am going to prove that it is a superstition. I am going to try this little experiment!”
With that, Antonio called his father’s dog Toro. Antonio gathered some mucus, some of the dog’s sleep, the lagaña, from the corner of Toro’s eye and rubbed on his eye lids.
He looked up again at the cemetery and the people in front of him, but nothing seemed different. He thought, “Ya decia yo, that’s what I thought! ignorance makes people believe many things.”
Suddenly he heard someone call his name, “Hola, Antonio! Que tal! Do you mind if I sit with you a moment? I am awfully tired”
Antonio looked at the newcomer and thought the stranger’s voice sounded familiar. He tried to see the visitors face, but the man was wearing an old Sombrero pulled low over his forehead.
Then Antonio said “Claro, of course! Have a seat.”
Next the stranger said “Antonio, don’t you know who I am? I am your amigo, your friend, Rafael.”
Now Antonio recognized the voice. This was a friend of his who had died the year before. For a moment, Antonio thought his friends were pranking him. With one swift movement, Antonio tipped over the sombrero from Rafael’s head. In the flickering candlelight, he saw a skull, without skin, bleached and smooth, with brilliant white teeth that seemed to be dog at him, and the hollow depths of two gaping holes where eyes should be. He was face to face with Rafael’s skeleton!
Antonio thought he had to be in some sort of a bad dream, so he rubbed his eyes to wake up, but it didn’t work. Realizing what this encounter really meant, Antonio became so frightened that he ran screaming through the cemetery in search of his family, Ayuda! Ayuda!
As he ran in terror, he bumped into one person after another, and as he looked at their faces, skulls gazed back at him. When he reached out to touch them, he felt only cold bones!
Unable to find his family in the cemetery, he ran home. He burst into the room where the ofrenda was and saw people eating. He thought they were his family, and they were, but not the ones he was looking for.
As he approached them, the people sitting by the table turned to face him, but they too, were skeletons.
At last Demetrio and his family returned home at dawn to find Antonio crouched on the floor in the middle of the room, staring vacantly, mumbling incoherent words. It seemed Antonio had gone mad!
For about a week Antonio would not speak to anyone and if someone tried to ask him what had happened, he would start praying.
You better believe it by next year on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, Antonio who had recovered from his fright, made sure to prepare some of the best ofrendas ever seen in his family for his dead relatives and even for his friend Rafael, because honestly Antonio did not want to meet them in person again.
We are back and I am excited about the historical exploration we are about to dive into. So, let’s begin!
Día de los Muertos is widely celebrated in Mexico but is most felt by the indigenous peoples across Mexico and parts of Central America. As of today, 41 ethnic groups across México honor their dead. Their celebrations begin between October 25th and 30th, and end between November the 1st and the 3rd. However, there are certain indigenous communities where the celebration lasts for the whole month of November.
And why is it so important to celebrate the dead?
In the sixteenth century, Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary who wrote about the indigenous people of New Spain, today’s Mexico, said that it was a tradition of the natives that “When a person had died, people would say that he was a teotl. It means that he was dead, and from there he would become a spirit or a deity.”
A belief inherited from old Mesoamerican tradition assures that the souls of the dead would attain a semi-divine status. This new status grants them the power to become advocates on behalf of the living, before the old gods, the Christian saints, or even the Christian god. In this manner, with a warm welcome of gifts and food, the living wish to persuade the spirits to advocate in their favor.
Yet, this does not mean that what is offered is a sort of commercial transaction or bribery. During Día de los Muertos, both the dead and the living acknowledge that they need, and should rely on, each other.
Among the Yaqui people in the Mexican state of Sonora, it is believed that there are certain days when the wall between worlds becomes so porous that the living and the dead can pass through without being subject to the laws of space and time. It is a time when both dimensions can meet, celebrate and be grateful for each other.
During the days when the veil between worlds is lifted, the dead hope the living will provide them with food, drinks, prayers, and other things for the journey they will embark on. While the living trust for the dead to intervene in their favor before the gods. Now, it is important to know that no one is obligated to be part of this relationship. The souls do not force us to give them anything, despite how certain cautionary tales may try to assure the opposite.
Now, let’s explore the indigenous roots of Día de los Muertos
The origin story of Día de los Muertos is lost, but traces of this old tradition have endured. Given the fact that it has lasted this long also indicates that, over time, some traditions have been modified and adapted.
There is evidence that during the early pre-classic period in Mesoamerica, between 1500 and 500 B.C.E, the dead were buried covered with a layer of red dust. They were also wrapped in petates, a type of reed mat, and buried in their homes, or nearby with offerings of utensils used in life, clay figurines, and food.
Later, between 500 to 200 B.C.E, the offerings became more refined. There was jewelry, pyrite mirrors, and a sacrificed dog.
Why did the dead need offerings? How long was the journey?
The Nahuas believed that the journey to the place beyond, called Mictlan, would initially take four days. Once the journey was ended, and after handing over to the lords of the place the offerings they had brought, the dead would be sent to one of the nine regions known as Chiconahuapan. The deceased would remain for four years, before going to the last place called The Obsisian of the Dead, where they would rest forever.
It was also believed that when a soul had arrived to Mictlan it would reach a river that only their dog could help them cross. Bernardino de Sahagún continues: “It was said that whosoever went to pass looked over to a dog. And when [the dog] recognized its master, thereupon it threw itself into the water to carry its master across. Hence the natives took care to breed dogs.”
Interestingly, not any dog could help the deceased cross the river, “It was said that a white dog and a black one ... could not carry one across to the place of the dead…The white one said: ‘I have just washed myself.’ And the black one said: ‘I have just stained myself.’ Only the yellow [dog] could carry one across’.”
So, now you know why the deceased needed a dog and many other offerings. It is important to mention that Mictlan, also known as the beyond or place of the dead, was reinterpreted by Christian beliefs as the inferno, or hell, but in reality, it did not have anything to do with that.
The multiple Nahua celebrations to their dead
To the ancient Nahua people, celebrations to their dead would be carried out on different occasions. On Tlaxcochimaco, the ninth month of their 18th month calendar, which in our calendar according to Bernardino de Sahagún corresponds to Jul 12 – Jul 31, the first days were marked by the celebration to the little dead, the Miccailhuitontli, that is those who had died as children.
The fiesta lasted for 20 days and there were offerings of vegetables. This celebration coincided with the culmination of the agricultural cycle of many ancient crops. It was a time of abundance and, thus, a time to show gratitude to the gods and the spirits of the deceased for the harvests. Gratitude was expressed by sharing the goods. Therefore, the dead do not frighten the living, because this is not a time for grieving. The living welcomed the dead in open arms with joy, respect, and gratitude.
Then, during the tenth Aztec month, called Xocohuetzi, for us Aug 1 – Aug 20, there was the commemoration of the adult dead, known as Miccaíhuitl, where people wept and offered food and pulque as well. Pulque is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey (agave) plant.
By the thirteenth month, called Tepeíhuitl, which to us would be Sept 30 to Oct 19 (according to Bernardino de Sahagún), they celebrated the fiesta of the hills, which was dedicated to the god of rain, Tlaloc, who lived in the mountain caves. Those who had been killed by lightning or drowning were remembered.
Then, by the month of Títitl, which went from December 19 to January 7, the Nahua would honor women who had died in childbirth, known as mocihuaquetzque. Those who had died of old age were also remembered at this time. During these days they would eat sour bread and drink from sour gourds of purple corn.
Finally, in the month of Tóxcatl, for us April 23 to May 12, the dead would be offered corn, blankets, dresses, food, and other things. Each family would have its own private celebration at home. They would offer incense to the images of their loved ones that had died.
Although it seemed as if the old Nahuas remembered their dead almost half a year, the specific celebration with which Christianity negotiated a sort of merging of the customs of both worlds was Miccailhuitontli. The celebration on the ninth Aztec month, for us August. And why did Christians join celebrations with the natives? Because Catholics also had their own days to remember the dead.
But instead of leaving the celebration on the eighth month of the Gregorian calendar, it was moved to November 1 and 2, so it would coincide with the Christian celebrations of All Saints and the Blessed Souls. We will explore this topic later down the episode.
Where would the souls go?
While Christian belief holds that merits and flaws would determine where a soul goes, to the Nahuas and other indigenous communities it was the way someone died that determined the person’s afterlife.
Thus, warriors who had died in battle accompanied the solar disk from dawn to noon in the form of butterflies or papalotl. From noon to sunset, it was the turn of women who had died in childbirth to accompany the sun. While children went to the place where the tree Chichicuáhutil would feed the infants with milk flowing from its branches.
Those who had drowned or had been killed by lightning would go to Tallocan, the happy place of the rain god Tlaloc. However, the nice Tlaloc would also welcome those who had died of incurable diseases, because they had suffered more than others in this life.
And finally, if someone had died from old age or an illness, they would go to Mictlan (the beyond, place of the dead or the underworld) a shadowy region ruled by Mictecacíhuatl and Mictlantecuhtli (the lady and lord of Mictlan).
Today, these ancient beliefs still shape the arrival of the dead during Día de los Muertos. Juanita Garciagodoy in her book Digging the Days of the Dead recalls an interview published in a Mexican News Paper called Uno más uno, where Juan Tecpa Uribe resident of Tlaxcala explained:
“The holidays of the dead are divided because some dead need more time to be with their family. On October 28 those who died of a violent death arrive. They were unable to bid farewell to their family before their death, so they come before the rest of the spirits to be reconciled to the world they left. The 29th brings those who drowned and who, we believe, were chosen by the god of rain to reside with him in his kingdom. On the 30th the spirits of the children arrive, followed on the 31st by grownups. The 1st of November is when all the dead are together and eat all the food placed on the offering, from which it is believed the nutritional properties are lost after these dates.”
Very well! Let’s take a short break so you can digest all that information. I propose we listen to another poem before we open the door to the colorful traditions associated to El Día de los Muertos.
Was sitting on a dump
Eating hard tortillas
To see if she could grow plump
was sitting among the reeds
Eating hard tortillas
And unsalted little beans.
(Quoted in Marted Días Cortés. Translated by Juanita Garcíagodoy in her book Digging the Days of the Dead)
It is said that death cannot reach us as long there is someone that remembers us. In that sense, the one that comes back “is just the one that went ahead of us,” the one we will soon meet, and comes with a message that the “beyond” exists, that the rites we performed worked. Death, then, is the threshold that we cross from here to there.
That is why Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is not marked by grief and mourning. There is no pain. An ancestor should not be welcomed with tears but with fiesta! The doors are open to the visitor that comes from the beyond. He is offered an abundance of food because we are thanking him for interceding on our behalf for a good harvest.
In this scenario, the ofrenda or offering has an important role. It is the axis of the whole celebration. The ofrenda is prepared and exhibited as an expression of gratitude, love, and veneration. To many the offering is a way to please the dead and avoid their disappointment, something that could bring retaliation, as some cautionary tales have predicted.
Now, this fear of how the dead may react upon seeing their own ofrendas, their offerings, likely was one of the traits inherited from Christianity. As we learned before, the indigenous people were familiar with the concept of death and celebrated in numerous occasions.
To them the dead were not to be feared. It is in Christianity that we find the fear of death, the torment that a soul will have to endure if it did not live accordingly to the religion’s mandates. Thus, from Christianity is that the current concepts of ghosts, of hell, purgatory, and heaven appeared. This does not mean that Christians invented all that, rather that after struggling to convert other groups, Christianity ended up absorbing many of those pagan and old beliefs. All those concepts eventually influenced the current Día de los Muertos celebration, but we will explain more later in the episode.
What did an ofrenda, an offering entitle?
A complete ofrenda would include flowers, food, drinks, religious images, the deceased portrait (if any) and candles. However, it could include far more.
Minutes ago, I explained that many indigenous groups in México and other communities in Central America, may have a longer Día de los Muertos celebration. The length of the fiesta is determined by their most ancient roots and beliefs. Yet, the celebration that we will focus on is the most well-known and practiced.
Then, La fiesta del Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead Feast, is mostly celebrated from October 31 to November 2. Because the first two days of November are the dates honored by the Catholic Church to the memory of “All Saints” and the “Blessed Souls.”
The altar is set up in a room, hallway, or corner of the living room, on a table or shelf. It is believed that the number of levels an altar has represents the levels of existence. The most common altars have two levels, representing heaven and earth.
The ofrendas, offerings and their meaning
The Portrait. The image of the dead signals the soul which altar is his to visit.
The cross. It is used in most altars and is a symbol introduced by Spanish missionaries but today its part of many indigenous tradition too.
An image of the Blessed Souls. An image that represents the souls in purgatory it is placed to intercede for the dead relative in case he is still in that place.
Copal or incense. Copal is a pre-hispanic element that purifies the energies of a place and that of the one that uses it. In the past it was an offering to the gods and to transmit praises and prayers.
The arch. The arch goes at the top of the altar and it represents the entrance to the world of the dead. It is adorned with limonaria, known as citronella and the cempasuchitl flower or marigold.
Papel Picado. This cut out paper represents the festivity of the celebration and the wind.
Candles. They are considered the light that guides the world and symbol of eternal love, faith, and hope. Traditionally they are white or purple, signifying mourning, purity, and the passing into immortality. The large candles can be organized according to the four cardinal points, whereas the smaller candles can be arranged like a path to the altar.
Water. It reflects the purity of the soul, the regeneration of life and harvest. Also, a glass of water is served to the spirit to quench its thirst, because the journey from the place of the dead to our homes is a long one.
Flowers. They are on every altar and on the grave. The cempasuchitl/cempoxóchitl flower or marigold serves to guide the dead to our world and it keeps insects away from the altar.
Calaveras. The skulls are distributed throughout the altar, and they can be made of sugar, clay, or plaster. They are decorated in colors and remind the living that death is always present.
Food. It is important to offer the dead their favorite dish, but if that is not possible, anything else would do, they come hungry, so they will not be too picky. In most communities preparing the food for the ofrenda or offering is the most labor-intensive and expensive holiday fare
Bread or Tamales. The bread represents the mass, and it was added to the tradition by Spanish missionaries. Often the bread has the shape of a muertito, a dead person, or like a round dome, and it is covered with sugar dust and made with anis. Tamales can be served as alternative of bread.
Alcoholic beverages. These are not required unless the dead at times enjoyed un traguito, a sip of tequila, pulque or mezcal.
Personal belongings. These belongings have the purpose to bring the dead memories of his former life.
It is important to know that once the souls of the dead have arrived at the altar, the living are warned against taking anything from the ofrenda because the dead “can come at night and pull your feet.”
When the altars and the ofrendas are ready, the dead are called or welcomed with firecrackers. Yet, in most towns the church bells toll in certain patterns depending on the day and the dead they are welcoming.
The most traditional communities dedicate an altar and sometimes a whole day to the ánima sola, the lone soul who has no one to remember and feed it. For instance, in San Andrés de Mixquic in Mexico City an ofrenda is set out for “Todos los Muertos,” that is all the dead. In Xochimilco south of Mexico City, a group of cargueros, or elders in charge go from house to house requesting items from people’s ofrendas to set up one for the anima sola, the lone soul.
Where else can we bring offerings to the dead?
There is another place for offerings, the graves. Thus, most families clean the graves of their dead in preparation for their visit. In many communities, the graves are decorated with the cempoaxóchitl or marigold flower. They place offerings of copal-incense, candles, calaveras (sugar skulls) and food, instead of, or in addition to the altars they have at home.
Tradition tells that in some households, family members may take turns staying by the grave the whole night to enjoy the presence of the disembodied guests. Juanita Garcíagodoy in her book Digging the Days of the Dead, tells is that in places such as Mixquic and Xochimilco, local priests celebrate mass in the graveyards.
Depending on the traditions of the place, the graveyards may be lit by candles so the spirits can see their way back. Music or songs are played, and words of farewell are spoken.
And what happens to the offerings of food after the dead have left?
It is believed that the dead do not take the physical offerings; rather they take its essence. According to Juanita Garcíagodoy many informants have said that they can tell that the flavor and scent of the offering has been consumed. Some elders cook the ofrendas with extra flavor, because “it is the flavor or the aroma what that the dead extract.”
Later, after the dead’s departure, the living eats the ofrendas, or offerings of food. It has been pointed out that when the water levels in the glasses on the altar are low that means that the dead had quenched their thirst.
Now, let’s take another break with a poem before we review the Spanish Influences on El Día de los Muertos.
And Death said:
Emperor, your sword won't help you out Scepter and crown are worthless here I've taken you by the hand For you must come to my dance
Juanita Garcíagodoy, tells us that El Día de los Muertos not only has roots in the ancient indigenous practices of many of the cultures that the Spaniards encountered 500 years ago in what is today Mexico and Central America, but it has also been influenced by Catholicism and other foreign cultural beliefs. Even the Spanish traditions were an amalgam, that is a mix of several other cultures.
From Catholicism, we have inherited the feasts of All Saints and All Souls also known as Blessed Souls. However, their origins are still under debate.
So, let’s talk about the All Saints Day
Rosalind Rosoff Beimler author of the book The Days of the Dead, claims that “Catholic funerary rites were an adaptation of Egyptian ceremonies for Osiris, god of life, death and grain, who was murdered on the seventeenth day of the autumnal month of Athyr, which corresponds to November of the Gregorian calendar. Around that time, the Egyptians believed the spirits of the dead visited their family homes. Their relatives set lamps to guide the spirits to where they had prepared food for them. In time these practices were carried to Europe by the Romans and influenced Christianity.”
According to some accounts, in the 8th century the Christian Pope Gregory III (731-741) delivered an oratory in the original St. Peter's Basilica in honor of all the saints on Nov. 1. The primary reason for establishing a feast day for all the saints was because of the desire to honor the great number of Christian martyrs that had died, especially under the rule of Emperor Diocletion (284-305). Later, Pope Gregory IV asked King Louis the Pious (778-840) to proclaim Nov. 1 as All Saints Day throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Today, that holy day recognizes of all Christian saints and martyrs of the past, present and future.
And what about the Day of All Souls or the Blessed Souls
November 2nd is when Christianity celebrates All Souls’ Day. Its purpose is to celebrate and intercede on behalf of the souls of the dead who are believed to be in purgatory (a place in between worlds) while undergoing a process of ‘purging’ for the mistakes they made while alive. In consequence, their living relatives and friends can pray and offer masses for their dead in hopes that they will accelerate the purification of the soul in question.
According to Elizabeth Carmichael and Chole Sayer, authors of the book The Skeleton at the Feast, “It took four centuries for All Souls’ Day to be widely accepted.” Why? Because its origins were rooted in many pagan traditions that intended to appease and honor the dead. Christians of the time saw this as sacrilege and heresy. Remember that to the Christian conception of the world, death is something to be afraid of, whereas for many indigenous people in old Europe and in the Americas, death was and is part of the continuation of life, and fear should not be brought into the mix.
For a long time, Christian officials tried to eradicate such pagan rituals, but the one practice that included feasting with the dead in the graveyards of the Mediterranean showed to be impossible to destroy.
Elsa Malvido, researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History in México, comments that in the Americas, “for many years the Indians were persecuted for taking offerings to the graves of their dead, whereas in the same period Spaniards were buried with wine and bread, and banquets were offered to the Spanish dead in their homes. [Also] this act of devotion, which was inspired by pagan practices, was prohibited by Saint Ambrose and replaced by Eucharistic services. However, it has been retained in the Eastern Christian church, and traces of it remain in our folklore.”
Malvido tells us that in Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands “In the villages, the death of a person did not go unnoticed because small towns were marked by agricultural tasks and the change of seasons. No neighbor could ignore death and, in one way or another, her active participation in the event was inexorable. The house of the dead became the center of social activity, whose inhabitants found few opportunities to meet and greet.
Malvido continues saying “We can think that the Day of the Dead has existed forever, long before the Church, always attentive to pagan festivals, set a date for it. It coincides with the end of fall, harvests, and preparation for winter.
“In the origins of these celebrations, we find a mixture of paganism and Christianity. Although it may seem like it, it is not a sad party. By remembering the dead, life is celebrated, and fears are dispelled by telling stories, eating and drinking.”
So, as you see my friends, death is celebrated in more places than in Mexico.
There is so much more we can say about Día de los Muertos, we can talk about the Literary Calaveras, Guadalupe Posada, but we will leave that for another special program. In the meantime, I will leave you with a poem.
Poem by Netzahualcoyotl, The Poet King
do we live on earth?
Only what gives us joy
Will the Place of Mystery be like earth?
Will we have life there?
Will we know one another?
There is no sorrow there.
One remembers nothing.
Can that place be our home?
Will we live there as here?
With this program we say goodbye to year 2020, if you live in the US I sincerely wish you a great Thanksgiving, and for all our listeners around the glove, have a peaceful end of the year and a prosperous, hopeful and healthy 2021! We will be back in January again with more stories!
Until the next cuento! Adios, adios.
Digging the Days of the Dead. Juanita Garciagodoy. University Press of Colorado. 1998.
La Festividad Indigena Dedicada a los Muertos en México. Coordinación Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural y Turismo. URL: https://www.cultura.gob.mx/turismocultural/publi/Cuadernos_19_num/cuaderno16.pdf
Día de Muertos. La celebración de la Fiesta del 2 de noviembre en la segunda mitad del siglo XIX. Guadalupe Ríos, Edelmira Ramírez, Marcela Suárez.Colleción Molinos de Viento. Serie Mayor. Tradiciones. Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana.1995. URL: http://historiaycultura.azc.uam.mx/libros/Dia_de_muertos.pdf
El altar de Muertos: origen y significado en México. Patricia Beatriz Denis Rodríguez, Andrés Hermida Moreno y Javier Huesca Méndez. Revista de Divulgación Científica y Tecnológica de la Universidad Veracruzana. Volumen XXVV. Número 1. Enero-Abril 2012. URL: http://www.seg.guanajuato.gob.mx/Ceducativa/CDocumental/Doctos/2013/Octubre/El%20altar%20de%20muertos.pdf
The Poet King of Tezcoco. A great Leader of Ancient Mexico. Francisco Serrano. Illustrated by Pablo Serrano. Groundwood Books. House of Anansi Press. Toronto, Berkeley, 2006.
Fiesta de los Finaos. Website Isla de Tenerife Vivela. URL: https://www.isladetenerifevivela.com/2013/10/fiesta-de-los-finaos.html