The funeral card for a local parish priest says only, "Life is changed, not taken away." This aptly describes the traditional Mexican view of death. Souls of deceased relatives and friends are indeed still alive, merely existing in a separate reality. Such beliefs help ease the pain of grief and loss. They are rooted in Aztec culture and drives the most celebrated of all Catholic holidays in Mexico, El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
The Catholic feast days of All Saints' and All Souls' Day on the first two days of November are universal. In Europe, they were grouped as All Hallows, the night before deemed the Eve of All Hallows or Halloween. In Mexico, where pre-Columbian culture meets Christianity, the feast has evolved into a three-day affair. It is a celebration and a rite of mourning signified by skeletons and flowers.
Dia de los Muertos is festive because the living and the dead may greet each other again for a short while. Graves are tended and whole families spend the night beside these family resting places. Meals and treats are provided on home altars to show respect for the dead. Families gather, mass is celebrated, special foods prepared and flowers are everywhere.
The single flower that has come to define this time of year is Tagetes erecta, a common bedding marigold that originates with a wildflower in southern Mexico. Prior to Dia de los Muertos, fresh-cut bundles of wildflowers are brought into the markets for sale at a lower price than cultivated hybrid marigolds.
Known in the ancient Nahuatl language as cempasuchil (sem-pah-soo-chee), it was introduced to Europe after the conquest. There breeding resulted in familiar dwarf French, and large head African marigold. The large head hybrids are sold by florists or grown at markets that cater to Latino traditions. Upscale florists can also obtain long stemmed bouquets too.
What defines the flower is its pungent scent, which Mexicans believe is recognized by the dead and may indeed lure them wherever the flowers are present. Thus it is everywhere during the Muertos days and nights, to ensure the lost loved ones can find their way from graveyard to the offerenda on the home altar.
Blood red cockscomb is an amaranth that is also present during this feast day, but more related to ancient Aztec traditions. During their 14 days of honoring the dead each year, cakes were made of amaranth seed for offering to the war god Hummingbird, Huitzilopochtli. Thus it too remains because Muertos, approved by the church early on, condensed the 14 days into the two feast days of All Saints' and All Souls' Day. This is also the root of the sugar skulls, which are a contemporary version of the often grizzly skull racks displayed at the great temple of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City.
Traditional altars in the Mexican style always feature a picture of the loved one remembered. There will be candles and burners that smoke with copal, the resin gathered from certain trees that has been the scent of ritual since long before the conquest.
Marigold flowers are used in so many ways. They can be strung into garlands and draped around the altar. Sometimes the petals are pulled and scattered over the altar extending to the floor and beyond to better guide wandering spirits. Often sugar cane is used as an arch over the altar and from this are dangled bunches of flowers. Vases overflow with fresh cut marigold, cockscomb and gladiolus wands.
Upon the altar table lies the offerenda, which consists of all things the deceased loved in life. It's not uncommon to find bowls of mole and cooked turkey heads, a delicacy in some states. There is often a bottle of beer or tequila, cigarettes or cigars and huesos de los santos, (bones of the holy), a special bread baked with small candy faces in the dough. Discover the holiday this year by exploring scents of ancient times, remnants of pre-Columbian life and a beautiful tradition that helps all who have lost loved ones feel close to them again for one magical night of the year.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.