The festivities of the days of the dead are ways of revitalizing family and community life and are one of the major celebrations in the yearly cycle of the Church calendar in rural communities.
The belief is that the world beyond is a projection of the culture and society of the living, so that death is only a transition into that world, into which the deceased will come if family members properly carry out the appropriate rites.
In the city of Oaxaca and the towns of the central valleys, the celebration of All Saints and All Souls starts on the 31st October with people purchasing in the market all the necessary supplies for the decoration of the altars and the preparation of the offerings.
Before the celebrations, artisans start making articles associated with these days, such as candelabra, burners, flower vases, skulls made of sugar or amaranth or decoratively cut paper. Likewise, farmers look after the agricultural products which will be needed for their own use or for sale.
On the morning of the 31st October, in one of the rooms of the home, the family starts to set up the altar to the dead. The form of these altars varies according to the particular tastes and origins of each family. Researchers agree, in any case, that the following components are always found: an arch made of reeds or canes (from which offerings are hung), the orange flower known as cempasúchil, offerings (food and drink), candles and incense.
On the 31st October, known as "the day of the little angels", the souls of dead children are awaited, with a very simple altar. The following day it is arranged and further decorated for the arrival of the souls of dead adult family members.
At dusk on the 31st, women are very busy preparing food for the offering, such as cooked squash and black mole; if the family finances permit, turkey meat is added. A dessert of tejocote fruit is prepared, as well as porridge with chiote (chili powder), and corn is taken to the mill to grind up for tamales.
The altar is usually erected on a table on which a number of boxes are placed on top of each other to create different levels. Then it is covered with a white cloth or with decoratively cut tissue paper. Over the altar an arch is formed, possibly referring to the symbolic union of Heaven and earth, or the final passage which closes behind the souls as they pass through on their way to the world of the dead. This is a journey full of perils, such as crossing a river with the help of a dog.
Sometimes a path is made of cempasúchil petals from the doorway of the house to the altar, so that the souls "don't get lost". Food is placed on clay dishes set two by two, an example of the eternal duality which exists in the indigenous world, in this case the duality of life and death.
Water is left in a glass or a gourd for the souls of the dead to assuage their thirst after the long journey from the beyond to the offering on the altar. The burning of incense enables or propitiates union with Heaven through the smoke rising from the earth.
The altars are decked with candles or candle lights, bananas, walnuts, jícamas, medlar fruits, oranges, apples, tortillas, tamales, chocolate, bread, soft drinks and bottles of mezcal and cigarettes if the dead person used to smoke. The whole altar is decorated with flowers and crosses. Some families crown the offering with an image of the saint they revere and a photo of the deceased.
The "bread of the dead" is food symbolizing life received through death, as a product made from cereals, plants which are "reborn" after being buried in the earth and decomposing.
On the first of November, all the families go out, dressed in their best clothes, to visit not only the cemetery but also houses of relatives and friends, exchanging food, drink and small gifts. Beside the graves decorated with flowers, candles, candle lights and offerings, they all share fruit, bread and tamales while they listen on the one hand to the prayers recited by a priest or by "prayer reciters" if the family so decides and, on the other, to the music of bands which will play a tune in exchange for a little mezcal.
|Dios nunca muere|
Popular music played with the marimba; a typical Oaxacan song which is played in all of the traditional Oaxacan festivities, particularly on the Days of the Dead; played in cemetaries and in houses by groups of professional dancers from the region.|
The deceased arrive preceded by their own authorities, similar to those of the living. For this reason, when the souls are deemed to have arrived, the leaders of the community go down to the cemetery to invite them in; when the ceremonies are over, they return to accompany them on their way back to the world of the dead. The belief is that when people return to their homes after their first visit to the cemetery, the souls of the dead accompany them to taste the food in the offering.
The dead are helped on their way back to the place from which they have come by troupes of masked dancers who frighten away those who are reluctant to leave. The dancers visit the homes in the community during the night, performing satirical skits with rhymed dialogue and dancing. In exchange, the families give them food and drink.
The celebration usually culminates with a visit to the cemetery on the 2nd November, though that day is sometimes only part of a whole cycle of festive celebrations in the cemetery which include flower arrangements on the graves, music, fairground rides and the sale of refreshments and various products.
Visits also continue in the homes, which become centres for meeting and partying and exchanging products from the offerings. These meetings and exchanges of "the dead" are an occasion for the consumption of large amounts of food and alcohol, with the result that a significant proportion of the adult population gets drunk during these days. Excessive drinking is not an individual act (when it is so, it is frowned upon), but a group activity designed to periodically reinforce social cohesion in this way.
With all this activity and excitement it should be emphasized, firstly, that celebrations are conducive to maintaining and strengthening social bonds in the community, even with people who have moved far away for economic reasons and who return to their homestead to participate in the celebration. Secondly, they underline the importance of the principle of reciprocity which characterizes indigenous economic systems: the whole society makes a considerable investment of time and money in goods and services which are redistributed among a large number of persons, thereby allowing them, through this as well as through other events, to face social and economic adversity.