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Day of the Dead Celebrates Spiritual Tradition
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Florence Brame
Ding! Dong! Trick or treat!
In our part of the United States, the tradition of Halloween revelers takes on a completely different meaning for many. Instead of costumed children vying for candy treats, the custom of All Hallows Eve (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2) are a significant spiritual time for some of our border peoples. Some border residents continue to celebrate El Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead.
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the 16th century to acquire new lands for God and country, they were appalled by such practices The Spanish friars sought a way to incorporate Catholic values with these pagan rituals and rid them of human sacrifice. A transition was then made from human sacrifice to the Christian ritual of eating the bread and drinking the wine, which stand for the body and blood of Christ. The mixtures of these traditions of Catholicism and pre-Hispanic beliefs are continued in the celebration of the Day of the Dead.
In Janitzio, Mexico, an insolated area of middle Mexico, the Day of the Dead is celebrated as it was centuries ago. Vendors line the path to the ancient burial ground to sell candy calaveras (skulls), artifacts and the special bread for El Día de los Muertos.
Led by young girls in communion dresses holding flowers, people walk in a procession, with some carrying rakes and brooms. Entering the cemetery, the parade of people disperse and begin cleaning, raking and watering the dirt and the mounds of the graves of their loved ones, so that the dead may breathe. Next the young girls place white flowers on the children's graves and yellow flowers on the adults' graves.
After this is done, an ofrenda (altar) is created on the grave site, providing a modest arrangement of food for the visiting souls. Prayers are then said for each dead soul.
Similarly, on the Mexican-American border, the Day of the Dead carries the same meaning, but with some variations in the ritual. On the days prior to the arrival of the visiting souls of the dead, flowers are gathered, bread baked and favorite foods of the departed prepared.
Special bread is cooked for the Day of the Dead. Of the approximately 300 different kinds of bread used in the Mexican culture, they are nearly all made from the same ingredients of flour, water, yeast, salt and shortening. For this special day, sugar and eggs are added to the basic recipe. It is believed that the bread should be sweet so that the souls of the babies and children can ingest just the sweet portions of the bread, and adult souls can eat the bread product left over.
The bread for the Day of the Dead is made into different symbolic shapes. Larger breads are made for whole families and smaller breads for individuals. They are shaped into animals and roscas (rings) for children Bread shaped like bull horns (cuernos) are usually hard breads blessed by a priest to atone for some small sin.
A large round loaf may have bones arranged in a cross or tear drops made of the dough placed on it, or the bread may depict the image of the departed. A skull shape is often made inscribed with a person's name or REX (for "king" or "Christ") in confectioner's sugar. These breads have their place on the ofrenda for the consumption of the souls of the dead and the physical enjoyment of the living.
Altars displaying the breads are now often placed on the table in front of a window rather than at cemeteries so that the visiting souls can find the home of their loved ones. The ofrendas are weighed down with the departed person's preferred foods, a statue of a favorite saint and marigolds to adorn the top of the altar.
The contests of each altar may vary, but the basics of bread, chocolate and flowers remain. If the harvest has been plentiful, the ofrendas will reflect this bounty, giving thanks to the dead who intercede with God and the saints. In addition, in each house a gourd is hung at the entrance with a portion of the food for those souls who have no one to remember them.
At midnight on October 31 the first souls begin to arrive. They are honored as the little angels on November 1, El Día de Los Angelitos. According to the Catholic religion, the little children's souls are venerated as a remembrance of the innocent children and might lose their way, a path of zempasuchitl (marigold) petals are laid in a trial from the cemetery to their home, or a firecracker may be set off at the family's house. On the particular day no one wears black nor should be seen crying, for the little ones may see and be unhappy.
The souls of the children share the ofrendas of the adults, a favorite dish, a toy or a candle is added for them. By noon on November 1, the souls of the children have departed, and souls of the adults begin to arrive. The dead partake of the food in spirit, and the living eat it afterward, but usually not until after midnight November 2, when all the traveling souls are full.
During the day of November 2 the families of the souls go to the cemeteries. They care for the graves by repairing the wooden crosses and laying fresh flowers on the graves. A priest will then read responsories over the graves of the dead. Later that some day the priest and musicians go around saying responsories inside and outside the homes to make sure the souls leave. Otherwise, some may get caught with the living if they have lost their way or do not wish to return.
Significant changes in these rituals have taken place as many Mexican-Americans adapt these practices from generation to generation. As Mexicans migrate farther north and into the United States, the traditions originally associated with the Day of the Dead Festival are being weakened.
For some families the Day of the Dead is a day of prayer on November 2. They pray for their departed and for the souls in purgatory. Also some journey to the cemetery where their loved ones are buried and clean the grave site and leave flowers. Unfortunately many are caught up in the American celebration of Halloween with their children, leaving behind the rich tradition of the veneration of the ancestors.