As I had mentioned in previous posts, pre-Hispanic Mexica summer rituals for the dead were moved and incorporated into the Christian All-hallow-tide by Spanish Catholic orders. Nowadays, Day of the Dead offerings may represent the journey of the roving souls, departing from earth (Hallows’ Eve); commending themselves to the guidance of all saints and martyrs in heaven (All Saints’ Day); awaiting judgement in purgatory (All Souls’ Day), to finally – and hopefully – reaching the blessed place. The food in the offerings is also a way to connect with the innocent souls (children) and faithful departed (adults), by sharing a meal in the cemetery, by their tombs, or at home, near the offering.
In Mexico, Day of the Dead offerings are arranged most frequently in either seven or three levels; when space is scarce, especially at home, a single level may be seen, as well. There are traditional guidelines of what to place on each level, but people might choose a loose interpretation of these rules, to include (or exclude) certain items, depending on their own family or local customs. Offerings of the pre-Hispanic Mexica included elements from Nature in honour of “The Lady of the Dead”, who guarded the bones of the deceased; souls had to embark on a nine-stage voyage to their final resting place, and that is why the offerings included fire and flowers, to guide them, and food to nurture them on the way. Fire and flowers have been a common theme in Christianity, for the light of Christ and remembrance, so they were reinstated in offerings during colonial times; food offerings for ancestors are also present in Asian cultures, and feasting next to the tombs of dead relatives may be traced as far as Roman Empire times, so these practices might not have seemed too strange, and remained in place.
My family did not follow this tradition, so I never assembled a Day of the Dead offering while living in Mexico, taking for granted the displays at folk-art museums and markets, or simply admiring in awe the private offerings respectfully placed at some of my friends’ houses. A few years ago, my daughters asked me about them and, since then, we have been setting-up a small offering on a corner shelf in our dining room. I do not include any of my dead relative photos, again, because it was not part of my family traditions; still, I try to keep the elements as authentic and meaningful as possible. My humble offering this year (photo at the top of this post), started with a black background, representing mourning and emptiness; at the bottom, a colorful banner of papel picado (tissue paper with cut-out designs) and a couple of bright mums, invite the souls to an earthly meal of pan de muerto (bread of the dead, recipe in my next post), sweet calabaza en tacha (pumpkin in syrup) and hot chocolate:
The next level prominently displays a veladora a la Virgen (vigil candle to the Virgin) to guide and protect the souls of the deceased, represented by two calaveritas de azúcar (little sugar skulls):
All Saints’ Day 2003 Pope John Paul II: “We celebrate today the solemnity of All Saints. This invites us to turn our gaze to the immense multitude of those who have already reached the blessed land, and points us on the path that will lead us to that destination.”
In Mexico, All Saints’ Day (November 1st) is also a time to remember children who have died, their innocent souls free from faults, other than a tantrum or other minor misbehaviour.
For an interesting post about food in cemeteries, including in Great Britain and The United States, check out Dining with the Dead by food and food-politics historian Rachel Laudan.