I spent some of my childhood in Mexico and some of my strongest memories come from Dios De Los Muertos when my mountain city became even more colourful and night and day blended into one as we celebrated and mourned.
One of the most haunting and beautiful traditions of Mexico is “el altar de muertos”, the altar for the dead. On All Saints and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2, the souls of the deceased have permission to visit their families still living, on earth. The Day of the Dead is a blend of pre-Hispanic indigenous beliefs and Spanish catholic beliefs and traditionally, November 1 is the day for honoring dead children and infants whilst adults are honoured the following day. Nobody goes unacknowledged though – October 27th is known as the Day of the Orphaned Souls where souls with no living relatives to welcome them are received by the community with bread and water hung on doors whilst October 28th is the day of the Accidentados , those that died a violent or accidental death. October 30th is the day to welcome the souls of children that died in childbirth before being baptized, los ninos limbos and October 31 is the day of the Angelitos, souls of children who have died in infancy, but have been baptized and are thus thought to be free of sin. There is a beautiful and pragmatic Aztec belief that in heaven there is a paradise where a tree of human breasts provides mothers’ milk for the Angelitos .
Both life and death are experienced as part of the same plane of reality according to pre Hispanic cultural beliefs- all life is engaged in a perpetual process of destruction and creation. During Aztec times, the ultimate achievement was a glorious death with the most honored way to die being la muerte florida ( the flowering death) during childbirth, death in combat or via ritual sacrifice to the gods. Death was seen as the beginning of the seasonal cycle of life and so the dead were honoured and commemorated with rituals and fiestas connected with the time of the harvest.
Mexico is rife with folk tales that warn of the consequences of failing to properly observe the traditions of the festival. Should families inadequately decorate their altar, the returning spirit may feel sad and angry and seek vengeance on those who have forgotten them. That vengeance might take the form of another family member falling ill and dying shortly afterwards.
“Pues el difunto podria volver ese día a la casa y hay que atenderlo bien”, (“you see, the deceased might return home that day so one has to look after them well”).
The visiting souls are welcomed and honoured by the setting up of an Ofrenda– an altar decorated by placing their favourite things upon it: foods to sustain them on their long journey and symbols of death and eternal life. The altar becomes a symbol of everlasting love and shows us that people live on in the hearts and minds of their family and friends. Preparation of the food is a family affair with much lively discussion as to the best way to stuff a tamale or roast a chile- households get together to set up tamale prep stations (they can be fiddly) and to share their harvests. Children sit together making paper chains and decorate the house with flowers.
The traditional Mexican altar for the dead is often installed in the main room of the house, on top of a table with three levels, the highest level representing heaven. Here you will find an image of a Santo, la Virgen, a cross, or Jesus. On the middle level you place a photo, or multiple photos of the person you are dedicating the altar to, and on the lowest level, representing earth, you place all your offerings.
Traditional offerings dating back to the Aztecs include:
The Flowers of Tzempaxuchitl (traditional Aztec name)- Marigolds
Calaveritas de azucar (sugar sculls that can be personalised)
Pan de muerto in the shape of bodies called ‘anima’ (the traditional ‘day of the dead’ bread)
Copal and incienso – these act as guide via scent to the relatives home
A dish of salt, symbolizing purification, is always included.
To this the family might add tamales wrapped in corn husks filled with special ingredients, cigarettes or cigarillos, a bottle of tequila, agua fresca or clay jugs of water. You will find bibles and copies of favourite books and some of the more whimsical, traditional pieces of decorative arts, local to the region. Figures of Catrina are traditional- this tall, elegantly attired female skeleton sporting an extravagantly plumed hat is there to remind Mexicans that nobody, no matter how wealthy, escapes death. You will also find dancing skeleton figures (called Calacas) carved of wood or made into filigree paper chains cut out of picado (colourful Chinese paper) and hung behind the altar- purple is the colour of mourning whilst hot pink and orange are celebratory and petate (woven reed mats) are sprinkled with flame orange marigold petals or the flower heads of multi coloured Zinnias. Other traditional flowers are baby’s breath ( nube ) and wine colored coxcomb ( magenta terciopelo). The journey from Mictlan (the Aztec name of the Underworld), is long and very tiring so a wash basin, mirror, towel, soap and shaving products (for the men) are placed near the Ofrenda so the departed spirit can cleanse themselves before joining in the festivities. Chairs with folded striped serapes are put out for the dead to sit on while they rest, drink and regain their strength. We used to use the traditional serape of Saltillo, the town we lived in.
Come November 2nd, light the candles, burn the incense and as each candle is lit the names of the departed are called out, as if to say “Come back home, my son, your family awaits you”. Then sit and wait. The spirits of your loved ones are all around you- in the breeze coming from the desert and mountains, in the moonlight that streams in through the windows and in the candle light as it flickers. The soul is nourished through the scents and flavours of the food, both before the families start to feast and during it and is led to the feast by following the scent of the marigolds as it is believed that they carry the scent of death.
Many families take their altars to the cemeteries where their relatives and friends lay buried and place offering on graves and inside tombs. At noon on November 1st, church bells toll for the arrival of the elder traveling spirits, known as the Faithful Dead. At sundown we would all process to our local cemetery accompanied by Mariarchi bands who would go on to roam the allees between the tombs, taking requests from attendees to play favourite songs and make dedications. We would picnic, drinking the drink made from corn and flavoured with hot chocolate (Atole) from earthenware bowls, eat tamales stuffed with turkey and pork and masa and break open the pan de muerto in the shape of Catrina, encrusted with primary coloured sugar crystals. Children gobbled down sugar skull candies straight from the twists of paper enclosing them then dance and, if young, fall asleep with the spicy scent of marigolds crushed underfoot. Tired out we’d be wrapped up in blankets and carried home through streets full of fiesta and gaiety.
In Mexico, life and death are celebrated and revered: the sugar skulls would bear both the names of the dead and of the living to remind us of this. I remember coveting the candies covering the graves and tombs of the muertitos (the little dead ones, or children), along with new toys. This super rich candy- Calabaza en Tacha, pumpkin cooked in brown sugar syrup was not eaten by us at any other time of the year and it is just as well- it is not good for the teeth.
I watched with wonder as families took the bodies of the relatives out of the tombs, unwrapped the muslin fabric that tightly encased them, washed their bodies and re-wrapped them, scattering marigold petals between the layers of cloth. There were no unpleasant scents as the cool dry mountain air encouraged mummification and families were skilled at preserving the bodies of their loved ones. Graves were scrubbed clean, redressed and garlanded with flowers and pathways swept of leaves and other detritus. From tomb to tomb the villagers moved, celebrating and mourning with their neighbours, lamps and burning torches held aloft to light the path. Incense burned in the air and the surrounding mountains cradled the graveyard, bruise-black in the distance, Friends told stories of their ancestors and renewed acquaintances with relatives travelling from afar whilst admiring the altars and graves decorated by others. As the sun went down along came hummingbirds striped of tail with breasts an iridescent oily green and they would drink the sugar water from feeders hanging from the trees in the cemetery. These feeders received an extra spoon of sugar during Dios de Los Muertos in case these birds were visiting souls in need of sustenance.
Other years saw us travelling into the Zapaliname mountains that surrounded our home in Saltillo. These mountains are part of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range and provided a dramatic backdrop to the altars erected in honour of Zapaliname, chieftain of the Huachichil tribe. Garlands of marigolds would stretch between rocks illuminated by serried rows of fat tallow candles with their porky scent. The nearby waterfall thundered behind the altar, spraying us with mist and a cool breeze. Our serapes were a welcome shield against the cold of the desert and mountain slopes.
Such strong iconography inevitably leads to a degree of cultural appropriation sadly and this has been increasingly evident in the UK these last few years as merchandisers seek to encourage us to spend more money on Halloween- it seems to be becoming a festival lasting a week or more now. I fail to see the difference between the wearing of First Nation headdresses at Glastonbury and the appropriation of Dios De Los Muertos traditions and symbols. Decorating your home with Catrina, decorated skulls, marigolds and the other imagery is appropriation even though the two festivals share roots in common. I understand that their gaiety is appealing and especially to British children but using them without even a basic understanding of Mexican religious and cultural practices can be insensitive. So where does British Halloween tradition lie?
All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas) is a perfect example of a marriage between religious belief and superstition and it is widely thought that Halloween originated as a pagan Celtic festival of the dead related to the Irish and Scottish Samhain (the celebration of the dying of the sun as winter approached), but there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead in pre-Christian times. We have no British tradition of using Dios De Los Muertos style iconography although in parts of France, Catholic families visited their family’s graves with pots of chrysanthemums.
The day after All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) is an opportunity for believers to remember all saints and martyrs, known and unknown, throughout Christian history. As part of this day of obligation, believers are required to attend church and avoid all but absolutely necessary servile work. The remembrance of saints and martyrs and dedicating a specific day to them each year has been a Christian tradition since the 4th century AD, but it wasn’t until 609AD that Pope Boniface IV extended this to all martyrs. 13th May was originally designated as the Feast of All Holy Martyrs and later, in 837AD, Pope Gregory IV extended the festival and changed its name to Feast of All Saints and the date to the 1st of November.
The Celts believed that the long winter nights made the perfect playground for evil spirits: the barriers between the human and spirit world were weaker and spirits walked the earth, seeking dominion over the living. Bonfires were constructed to frighten these spirits away and people danced and feasted around them, believing that the flames brought comfort to souls in purgatory. Burning at their strongest in Scotland and Ireland where Celtic influence was at its strongest, the fires lingered on in some of the northern counties of England until the early years of the last century. In Lancashire, ‘Lating’ or ‘Lighting the witches’ became a tradition where locals carried candles from eleven to midnight. If the candles burned steadily the carriers were safe for the season, but if the witches blew them out, it didn’t look good…..Also known as Nut Crack Night in parts of Northern England, nuts were put on the fire and used to forecast the success or not of marriages and love affairs, according to how they burned.
Halloween was also sometimes called Snap Apple Night, in England. Contestants had to try an bite the apple suspended on a piece of string without using their hands. A variation of the game was to fix an apple and a lighted candle at opposite ends of a stick suspended horizontally and to swing the stick round. The object was to catch the apple between the teeth whilst avoiding the candle. Many places in England combined Halloween with Mischief Night (celebrated on 4 November), when boys played all kinds of practical jokes on neighbours. ‘Souling’ was a ninth century pre-reformation European Christian custom where locals would make house calls and beg for ‘soul cakes’. In exchange for a cake they promised to pray for the repose of the soul because it was believed that the prayer of strangers especially could help this souls journey to heaven. Platters of these little unleavened cakes were left on porches with water or something stronger as the pilgrims gathered, singing songs such as this:
“A soul, a soul, a soul cake. Please god missus a soul cake. An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry, Any good thing to make us merry. Up with your kettles and down with your pans Give us an answer and we’ll be gone Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate Crying for butter to butter his cake One for St Peter, two for St Paul, Three for the man who made us all.”
If children were part of the group, they would be accompanied by a hobby horse (an echo of the Celtic past), which was called the Hooden Horse at this time of year. Shakespeare was familiar with this custom and referenced it in ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ where observed pithily that one of the special marks of a man in love is to ‘speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas”.
And it is in these customs we see the beginnings of the modern practices of trick or treating and party games.
Similar to a Hot Cross Bun but without the cross or currants, these little allspice flavoured cakes make an authentic and delicious All Souls Day breakfast- try them with jam, honey or even maple syrup. If you wish, you can flavour them with saffron which was a traditional crop across parts of England.
175g caster sugar
3 egg yolks
450g plain flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice or allspice
Preheat oven to 180c and cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until fluffy and pale then beat in egg yolks. Sift flour and spices then slowly add in, mixing to a stiff dough. Knead thoroughly and roll out to 1/4 inch thick then cut into 3 inch rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. Prick the rounds with a fork and bake 20-25 mins or until lightly golden and cooked through. Sift with icing sugar and eat warm.