Day of the Dead: the richness of the ritual

By Teresa Dovalpage
Posted 10/30/19

Day of the Dead evokes images of loved ones, wax-dripping candles and tantalizing smells coming from the kitchen. Sheets of colorful tissue paper, cut into elaborate designs. Little sugar skulls, too extravagantly ornamented to be edible, but pretty nonetheless. Flower arrangements, generally featuring marigolds or cempasúchil.

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Day of the Dead: the richness of the ritual

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Day of the Dead evokes images of loved ones, wax-dripping candles and tantalizing smells coming from the kitchen. Sheets of colorful tissue paper, cut into elaborate designs. Little sugar skulls, too extravagantly ornamented to be edible, but pretty nonetheless. Flower arrangements, generally featuring marigolds or cempasúchil.

Day of the Dead, when grandmas remember and talk longingly about their own abuelas, the long-gone great-grandparents no one but them recalls. Day of the Dead, when the elders reminisce about times past and the way things used to be, way back then.

Day of the Dead, so close to Halloween, and yet so different. Halloween: All Hallows' Eve, the end of the harvest season, the Celtic Samhain festival. Today, an evening of parties, trick or treating and costumes.

Day of the Dead: All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Time of remembrance and reflection on the cycle of life and death. Irreverent, but not mocking. Whimsical, but not ghoulish. There isn't fear - real or pretended. Instead, it invites us to appreciate the fact that we are (still) among the living.

If you have lived more than a year in or near a Hispanic community, you may be used to the Day of the Dead. You may already know that the celebration has two key elements: word and food. The culinary memory of the family kept alive and shared along stories of the ancestors.

The word

Sometimes people trade short poems called calaveras ("skull"). They are humorous verses like:

Ahí viene el agua

por la ladera,

y se me moja

mi calavera.

La muerte calaca,

ni gorda, ni flaca.

("There comes the water

down the slope

and my skull

gets wet.

The calaca death,

neither fat nor thin.")

(A calaca is a figure of a skull or skeleton, usually human, commonly used for decoration during the Day of the Dead.)

Some calaveras are based on popular songs or refer to funny anecdotes. Others are satirical, like fake obituaries for the living. In the Taos News, the calaveras written by Jerry Padilla were famous.

Can you come up with a calavera and share it on Facebook?

The food

There is food for the living and there are offerings for the dead. The festive banquets can take place at home, around an altar or the dining room table or at the cemetery, where the whole family arrives bringing the dishes and drinks their loved ones used to enjoy. While they are at it, they also take the time to clean and decorate the graves with flower arrangements.

It may sound a bit creepy for the uninitiated but in truth, there is nothing somber or particularly sad about it. Day of the Dead is a celebration of life. People gather to share family tales, sometimes tinged with melancholy, but frequently funny. The "remember whens" are often accompanied by knowing smiles.

Sugar skulls, topped with colorful bright icing, are a staple in these events, but there are many other possibilities. A Mexican culinary treasure, atole is a comforting drink prepared with milk, corn flour, vanilla, sugar (piloncillo is the best option) and sometimes nutmeg and cinnamon. Perfect for a cold November night.

My favorite Day of the Dead food, though, is pan de muertos - a sweet, soft roll sprinkled with sugar (white or colored), glaze or icing, and covered with bone-shaped decorations. Here is the recipe, provided by Elena Ocaña, a former University of New Mexico-Taos student.

The Spanish version of this story is on Page C4.

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